The word “sportswashing” has been used so much by critics of the international business of athletics that it has almost become a cliché. For starters, this is when a PR-friendly sporting event is used by a nation – usually led by a murderous and authoritarian leadership – as a propaganda tool to elicit good vibes and associations with its system. A famous example is the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany or hosted by Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) dictator Mobutu Sese Seko the most famous boxing fight, the 1974 fight in the jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. However, users of this phrase seem to reserve it for mostly non-Western dictatorships (particularly China).
But sports washing should be understood as something that all governments – especially Western governments – indulge in when sport is used as a tool to achieve anti-poor and pro-development policy goals that people might otherwise oppose. Los Angeles, for example, hosts the 2028 Summer Olympics, and now as part of the preparations, the city is attacking the uninhabited population. Los Angeles will likely oppress the homeless whether the Olympics are coming up or not, but the games’ brilliance provides cause and cover. When athletes refuse to compete in Israel, it is a protest against the laundering of sport, and against the legalization of their occupation of Palestine.
Sportswashing is high on the news, due to the new LIV golf tour that Saudi Arabia is guaranteeing. Some of the biggest names in the sport, including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, have taken as many as nine figures of Saudi money for the mighty purpose of getting paid, regardless of the moral implications. Mickelson now infamously spoke to this matter several weeks ago, when he said the Saudis “are a scary momo to get involved with. We know they were killed.” [Jamal] Khashoggi has an appalling human rights record. They execute people there for being gay. Knowing all this, why am I even thinking about it? Because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour works. They were able to overcome manipulative and coercive tactics and strong arm, because we, the players, had no recourse.”
In other words, Mickelson may be, somewhere in his mind, collaborating with some dangerous characters but nobly breaking the PGA-like cartel-like control of the game. He looked in the mirror and saw Kurt Flood with a racket, with such wealth that he only had the spoils of war. This, of course, is nonsense. People like Flood, the baseball player who fought for free agency, risked everything to win freedom of action – and didn’t secure a cash bag for their problems.
Such is the case for the politics of golf: highly conservative, sensitive to social responsibility, resentful of progress, and always on the pursuit of responsibility.
In addition to Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record, it is now understood that prominent Saudis were heavily involved in planning the September 11 attacks, with 15 of the 19 hijackers actually being Saudis. This reality injected anger and nationalism into the backlash against Michelson and his associates. Families United group September 11th sent an open letter to golfers blowing them up, and Sports Illustrated She stated, “Expressing outrage that the group will become business partners with the new league and engage in sports laundry.”
As Terry Strada, the group’s national president, whose husband was murdered on 9/11, wrote:
Given Saudi Arabia’s role in the deaths and casualties of our loved ones on 9/11 – your fellow Americans – we are incensed that you are willing to help the Saudis cover up this history in their demand for “respect.” When you partner with the Saudis, you become complicit in their acquittal, and you help give them the cover of reputation they so desperately crave — and are willing to pay big for industrialization.
As for Mickelson, he stammered about his “deep sympathy” with those who lost loved ones on 9/11.
Strada then returned with another comment: “Phil knows exactly what he’s doing, and he and his fellow Lev golfers should be ashamed. They’re helping the Saudi regime “sport wash” its reputation for tens of millions of dollars, and at the same time our government is providing more compelling evidence. Saudi Arabia is responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, said: “You have to live under a rock not to understand the implications of getting yourself involved with the Saudis.” There is no greater sign of Mickelson’s corruption than allowing the PGA Tour to adopt a moral high ground, both in her comments and when she suspended LIV players indefinitely. PGA is an organization built on a history of racism, sexism, and exclusion. It has also endorsed tournaments in places that engage in their own sports wash and have poor human rights records. Commercial Bank Qatar Masters has been operating aggressively for 25 years. Their arrogance, hypocrisy and cartel-like bravado, displeased many players. But leaving the PGA and rushing into the arms of the ruling family in Saudi Arabia is like going from pan to holocaust. All these people deserve each other. But if this episode advances understanding of sports washing and its uses, then – especially with the World Cup in Qatar and the Olympics in Los Angeles – we can be better prepared for the next round of publicity.