- LIV Golf is an upstart league backed by the Saudi government meant to compete with the PGA Tour.
- Critics have accused LIV Golf as an example of “sportswashing,” or using the love of sports to cleanse the image of an authoritarian regime, like Saudi Arabia.
- Whether or not sportswashing works depends on who you ask, and how long the country carrying out the practice commits to its goals.
The golf world has been upended.
After decades of dominance by the PGA Tour, some of the best players in the world have now jumped to a new league — LIV Golf. Backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, LIV Golf was able to draw the likes of Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Brooks Koepka away from the PGA Tour with huge purses, even bigger guaranteed paydays, and a lighter schedule.
The new league, and the players that have made the jump over, have come under scrutiny, particularly due to the source of the cash that is supporting the breakaway project. Given Saudi Arabia’s history of human rights violations, including the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, critics have decried the new league as a blatant act of “sportswashing” — an attempt by the Saudi government to launder its image on the international stage by co-opting people’s love of sport.
The term has been used to describe several recent and upcoming international sporting events, including recent Winter Olympics in Sochi and Beijing, and the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
But beyond hosting events, sportswashing has also been used to describe other investments that several oil-rich countries have made in the world of sports, including Qatar’s ownership of the football club Paris Saint-Germain and Saudi Arabia’s investment in Premier League club Newcastle United, which was made from the same fund behind LIV Golf.
Sportswashing is a relatively new term, but has been practiced for generations on the international stage
It’s undeniable that the term sportswashing is having a moment.
“The widespread use [of it] in the past month and a half is kind of an explosion of the word,” Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute For Diversity And Ethics In Sport, told Insider.
“Sportswashing is when a nation tries to use the love that people have and the passion they have for sports to help them ignore what might be the reality of the politics of the country,” Lapchick explained.
But while the widespread use of the term is relatively new, it’s been practiced by governments for years.
Perhaps the most obvious historical example is the Berlin Summer Olympics, hosted in Nazi Germany in 1936. But four years before that, the second ever World Cup was hosted by Italy, at that point ruled by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Some have even argued that the gladiator battles of Ancient Rome could be considered a form of sportswashing, quelling the masses with the entertainment of sport.
Lapchick has personally worked against the efforts of sportswashing, having helped lead the sports boycott of apartheid South Africa in the late 1970s. A close friend to Muhammad Ali, Lapchick was a part of the group that convinced the greatest boxer of all time not to take a fight in South Africa while it was an apartheid state.
Back then, sportswashing wasn’t a part of the collective vocabulary, but now, as it has gained prominence, it’s worth examining what exactly is meant by those that use it and why it’s important for the sports world to understand it.
Whether or not a project is sportswashing can depend on who is asking and who is answering the question
Because sportswashing is a new term, its exact definition, and specifically, the subtext it carries can be a bit muddied — what’s sportswashing to one person or country may just look like an exercise in soft power to another.
“The popular discourse around this term sportswashing has, I think, become overly simplistic,” Simon Chadwick, Global Professor of Sport at Emlyon Business School, told Insider.
According to Chadwick, the term first gained traction among cause groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
“They were using the term in the context specifically of, very often, Asian nations,” Chadwick said. “The usual suspects inevitably would include the likes of Qatar and China, and more recently Saudi Arabia has ascended to that membership.”
“It’s just a way of describing nations that we feel uncomfortable about,” Chadwick said. “And for me, we often don’t know why we feel uncomfortable about these nations.”
This is not to say that there is not good reason to be uncomfortable with some of the nations accused of sportswashing. Rather, there is a distinction worth identifying between what is widely described as sportswashing and what is considered an exercise in soft power by the international world.
“Soft power is legitimacy-seeking behavior. It is seen by many nations around the world as a legitimate pursuit to try and enhance your attractiveness,” Chadwick said. “Whereas obviously sportswashing is seen as something deviant, and therefore, somehow isn’t seen as a globally legitimate means through which to try and shift perceptions.”
The case of Saudi Arabia’s investment in LIV Golf shows how both terms can apply to the same situation.
In 2021, the Biden administration released a report that directly implicated Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in the killing of the Washington Post journalist Khashoggi. If LIV Golf is viewed as an act of sportswashing, one could argue that its purpose, at least in part, is to shift the conversation surrounding Saudi Arabia away from Khashoggi’s death, and other human rights violations, and instead focus the public’s attention on golf.
At the same time, if LIV Golf is viewed as an exercise in soft power, one can make the case that it is a legitimate investment in diversifying the interests of Saudi Arabia.
“A really important word about this is intent,” Chadwick explained. “With soft power, the intention is to get people to like you. Whereas the intent behind sportswashing is basically to mislead people.”
Intent, however, is a very tricky thing the suss out.
Whether sportswashing works is also a complicated question
Another difficult aspect of the term “sportswashing” is that it implies that the effort is effective. People are concerned with sportswashing because it means that a country is working to launder its reputation through sport, and its success feels inevitable.
But at least through the early coverage of LIV Golf, which has featured golfers constantly questioned about taking problematic money, as well as protests at several events, it feels apparent that at least thus far, the opposite might be true. Rather than wash away the human rights record of Saudi Arabia, the emergence of LIV Golf has instead put them under a microscope, starting with one of the league’s very own stars.
“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Phil Mickelson, one of the first players to shift from the PGA Tour to LIV Golf, told longtime golf journalist Alan Shipnuck in an interview last November. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”
When Mickelson’s comments were published, it felt for a moment that LIV might never get off the ground. It also ensured that every player that made the decision to leave for LIV would likely be asked about their own justifications for joining up with the new league.
Indeed, Chadwick has written in the past that at least in the immediate aftermath of an event some might label as “sportswashing,” the effect is closer to “sports-staining,” given the new scrutiny that the country in question comes under.
That said, as a long-term play, sportswashing can be effective. As Lapchick explains, while the initial interest in an event might bring increased international scrutiny, in the case of LIV, it’s likely that interest in the sportswashing aspect of the story will wane in favor of talking about golf.
“This is a long-term investment, and they believe — and history would say that they’re probably right — that the interest that you have as a reporter [in sportswashing] won’t be there six months from now or in the second year of LIV,” Lapchick said.
We won’t have answers about LIV Golf until some time in the future
Ironically, the athletes that jumped to LIV Golf have often given the best definitions of sportswashing, while responding to accusations of being used as tools of sportswashing.
Speaking with reporters ahead of the first LIV event, Graeme McDowell broke it all down rather succinctly.
“This has been incredibly polarizing. I think we all agree up here, take the Khashoggi situation; we all agree that’s reprehensible. Nobody is going to argue that fact,” McDowell said. “But we are golfers.
“We are not politicians…. If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we are proud to help them on that journey, using the game of golf and the abilities that we have to help grow the sport and take them to where they want to be.”
Already though, it’s possible that the initial sportswashing effects of LIV Golf’s have begun to take hold. With each passing tournament and each new player making the jump from the PGA Tour, the questions are less pressing, and have become easier to answer. There is strength in numbers.
Further, as LIV hosted its third event at Trump National Bedminster, former President Donald Trump was extremely present throughout the weekend, including standing on the podium to congratulate the winners alongside Yasir Al Rumayyan, the Governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The two had teed off together to begin Thursday’s pro-am, and now stood together again in front of a crowd that had chanted “Four more years!” several times throughout the day.
LIV’s final event of the season is set to be contested at Trump’s course in Miami, and it’s possible that his courses will host even more events in 2023. With a continued investment, LIV Golf could stay in his good graces, and maybe bring a good amount of his supporters around with him. For his part, Trump seems willing to help.
“I think LIV has been a great thing for Saudi Arabia, for the image of Saudi Arabia,” Trump said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal ahead of LIV’s event at his course in Bedminster, New Jersey. “I think it’s going to be an incredible investment from that standpoint, and that’s more valuable than lots of other things because you can’t buy that — even with billions of dollars.”
“I can say that from the standpoint of Khashoggi, that has died down so much,” Trump said. “It really seems to have totally died down.”
Indeed, that’s precisely the idea.