Splinters 2: Saudi golf
Where we're at with the Saudi-funded golf breakaway league and a brief history of sportswashing.
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The Saudi golf league first came to my attention at the end of last year and is the perfect topic for this newsletter. It has everything - basically, people being repugnant fuckheads for money in a sports context - but sadly revolves around an activity that I personally detest due to its class connotations and also (and let’s face it, mostly) because I find it boring.
Nonetheless, because I am willing to make big sacrifices for my readers, so I have dived in.
News about the league tends to come in waves but the broad strokes are:
Saudi Arabia has a lot of money to spend.
The head of Saudia’s Public Investment Fund, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, is a keen golfer.
The PIF has invested money in a company called LIV Golf Investments and appointed Greg Norman as its CEO1.
Saudis via PIF via LIV immediately announced that it would invest a pile of money into the Asian Tour. The Asian Tour sits below the
EuropeanWorld Tour and PGA Tour in terms of prestige and prize money, which makes it a perfect beach head for LIV to commence its campaign.
The Saudis via PIF via LIV are seizing an opportunity to take a stake in golf by leveraging the existing disputes to lure players to their new tour.
This stake will, presumably, pay a financial dividend at some point and help Saudi Arabia forcing itself onto the world stage.
As many have pointed out, the Saudis have no need to make a profit in the short term and have, for our purposes, limitless resources so they can promise the world to everyone if it means they can succeed. So far, this is playing out exactly like every other sports splintering.
Things seemed to come to a head in February. Rory McIlroy turned down the Saudis:
“I’m in a way better financial position than I was a decade ago and my life is no different. I still use the same three, four rooms in my house. I just don’t see the value in tarnishing a reputation for extra millions.”
Meanwhile, comments from Phil Mickelson were leaked where he blatantly states that he is not interested in the Saudi money (“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with”) and merely using this as an opportunity to leverage his reform agenda within the PGA. I found his honesty refreshing4 but naturally, his honesty has snookered him. The backlash led to Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, who were the other big names rumoured to be in the pro-Saudi mix, declaring fealty to the PGA, followed by Mickelson himself.
The Saudi involvement was too toxic for anyone to associate with and without the players, the whole thing seemed dead. The PGA Tour threatened to ban anyone associated5 with the Saudi league and Greg Norman sent a moderately unhinged letter to the PGA Tour commissioner.
But like European soccer’s Super League, this thing will probably never die until it actually happens. LIV have reportedly increased the guaranteed money on offer to players and announced a schedule6, which includes one golf course owned by the former President of the United States, so that’s nice for him and doesn’t degrade this whole saga another degree.
Norman claims to have received substantial interest from lots of players - itself an obviously Trumpian claim - following his second leaked letter, which hits a lot of familiar notes. In summary, “This is not about us, this is about you, the players, and giving you what you want. Don’t worry about what we want out of this deal.”
I don’t know where this is going to end up. Without at least a decent number of stars, the Saudi league is a non-starter, but if they’re playing with substantially reduced fields in the first instance and offering four times the prize money, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out someone, somewhere will do the numbers and break ranks.
They only need a couple to get going and can pad out the field with nobodies, who will move from obscurity to obscene wealth. Unless broadcasters refuse to deal with it, golf sickos will watch, if only to see if anything weird happens7, but perhaps not in substantial numbers.
Once the whole thing is up and running for a few years, we’ll forget all about the Saudi involvement and it’ll become normalised with the only reminder that you can’t play on the Saudi tour and the PGA Tour8.
Further reading: How Phil Mickelson Out-Mickelsoned Himself
The grace, the beauty of sports
A brief history of sportswashing
It’s great that the media have cottoned on to the concept of sportswashing, as if it was a new phenomenom invented by China in time for the 2022 Olympics, but the reporting around it remains tedious.
Let’s be clear upfront lest this come across as an unintentional defence of the Saudi regime and sportswashing in general: Saudia Arabia is run by awful people. You couldn’t pay me enough money to live there. I cannot envision a future in which I say anything nice about Saudi Arabia’s regime. You shouldn’t murder political opponents.
In its narrowest sense, sportswashing is the deliberate use of sports as a reputation laundering service for specifically non-Western and usually authoritarian regimes. In its broadest sense, sportswashing is politics in sport.
Putting aside the inherent funniness of the following quote from Wikipedia, it demonstrates a longstanding instinct of the powerful to take sport and wrap themselves in it for their own ends:
One of the most infamous events of Olympic history occurred under the rule of Nero. He desired victory in all chariot races of the Panhellenic Games in a single year, so he ordered the four main hosts to hold their games in 67 and therefore the scheduled Olympics of 65 were postponed. At Olympia he was thrown from his chariot, but still claimed victory. Nero also considered himself a talented musician, so he added contests in music and singing to those festivals that lacked them, including the Olympics. Despite his terrible singing, he won all the contests, no doubt because judges were afraid to award victory to anyone else. After his assassination, the Olympic judges had to repay the bribes he had bestowed and declared the "Neronian Olympiad" to be void.
Were I a historian, we’d could probably draw on more examples from history. Instead, I am left to defer to documentaries, like A Knight’s Tale9, to make the observation that if European medieval nobility organise games in which nobles display their martial prowess, not just to each other but to the wider peasantry, I think that sends a pretty clear political message in the guise of sport. See also: modern pentathlon or, for that matter, the Hoplitodromos.
Once what we think of as modern, organised sport emerges in the mid-nineteenth century Europe, this new cultural institution reflects the political mores of the time. The modern Olympics, for example, are born out of muscular Christianity and education through adversity, a proto-modernism driven by the social impacts of the industrial revolution, and the ability of sports to strengthen the French so they can fight the bastard Germans:
While Coubertin was certainly a romantic, and while his idealized vision of ancient Greece would lead him later to the idea of reviving the Olympic Games, his advocacy for physical education was also based on practical concerns. He believed that men who received physical education would be better prepared to fight in wars, and better able to win conflicts like the Franco-Prussian War, in which France had been humiliated. He also saw sport as democratic, in that sports competition crossed class lines, although it did so without causing a mingling of classes, which he did not support.
Hitler’s Berlin Olympics in 1936 was the apogee of this line of thinking. His Olympics were held to demonstrate the superiority, not of the privately educated and amateur British and French aristocrat, but of the Aryan race. Of course, we don’t want to examine the throughline from de Coubertin’s beliefs to Hitler’s beliefs too closely unless we want to unravel something rather nasty about ourselves. It is better to file this under “Nazis are Bad” and leave it at that.
Not only is sportswashing not a new phenomenom, which is probably obvious, the current iteration of it, even as narrowly defined above, is markedly different from earlier examples. Nero (and Peron) used sport to bolster their own egos. Hitler used the Olympics to push his, uh, philosophy and that, to put it lightly, backfired somewhat10.
What we see over the last twenty years is places like Malaysia, Russia, China, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Bahrain, Brazil, the UAE, Kazahkstan and lately Saudi Arabia use sports events to signal to the wider world that they, too, are part of the western neoliberal system. This means you can trust them. It is not about inherent superiority or ego, it is about joining the established order.
You’d have to have suffered a significant brain injury to take that at face value in 2022, however, in the heady days of post-9/11 2000s, it seemed like this might actually happen. China and India and Russia and Brazil were going to liberalise, get rich and the West would have billions more consumers to sell stuff to, which is all this was ever about.
Subsequent events and changes in leadership have disproven that notion and the ripple effects of those events, and the corresponding shock from our alleged experts, I think are factors in the current way sportswashing is presented by the Anglophone media today. It was momentous to award the Olympics to Beijing in 2001 but a matter of corrupt moneygrubbing to do so in 2015.
Saudia Arabia, like the other Gulf states, wants to use sport to diversify its investments because even they know that oil has a limited future, both because of climate change but also because it is a literally finite resource. While they have the money, they will find somewhere, anywhere, to put it: sports, Uber, tourism, finance, building cities in the middle of nowhere. That this edges the centre of the world closer to Riyadh is also part of the project; reputations be damned.
When the oil dries up, the Saudi royal family will still be rich and they can use that to maintain their legitimacy as rulers and use that to maintain their own particular brand of domestic social conservatism without interference from the liberal, non-Islamic West.
We could ask questions about what this says about how the Saudis view us and what this says about the way we organise our politics and culture and economies but, again, we might discover something unpleasant. For example, we might find out that Western economic dependence on oil has funded the worst atrocities in the Middle East over the last century and its dependence on gas has funded the Russian military’s existence or that the moral flexibility, under the guise of freedom, of our economic and political systems allows them to bend in ways that they shouldn’t. It’s better to divy the world into Goodies and Baddies and move on.
The great irony of this whole ordeal is that if the Saudis laundered their money through one of the many amoral financial institutions around the world and/or reduced their direct stake to background noise, I’m not sure it would have kicked off such a fuss. Indeed, if investment came from Goldman Sachs on behalf of PIF, rather than PIF itself, they probably could’ve walked through the front door, instead of having to qualify via the Asian Tour, but that doesn’t make a statement about where Saudi Arabia sees itself on the world stage.
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One of the very funniest things about this is that Greg hasn’t posted anything about LIV or Saudi Arabia on his Twitter account. It’s almost as if he knows…
Professional golfers at this level are a bunch of right-leaning, extremely competitive millionaires, so expecting them to be uniamous in anything other than their own enrichment seems ambitious.
For example, the PGA tightly controls use of highlights on social media (to protect broadcasters) and players are obliged to pay large sums to use them to promote their own brands. A second example is the distribution of prize money, which I haven’t dived into the specific arguments of but am forced to assume, based on past experience, that not enough goes to top players. A third example is that the PGA Tour is a not-for-profit and yet has an enormous amount of cash sitting idle which could go to, for example, Phil Mickelson’s personal bank account. A fourth example is that some players would like to just get paid, irrespective of their performance on the green, because the gig economy sucks whether you get paid millions or a pittance.
“The most prominent of these is Mickelson, a hard-gambling, tax-phobic risk junkie with a very large mouth who’s spent much of the last few months positioning himself as the teller of truths to the power of the PGA. Whether someone with a hundred million dollars on paper can do this is a great question to ask, even if circumstances have changed so drastically for Mickelson personally that he sold his private jet in 2019 and moved to the income tax-free shores of Jupiter, Florida. (It does not always apply, but a solid general rule to follow is that if someone moves to Florida, it’s rarely for good reasons.)…
That’s astonishing, like just completely fucking astonishing at every level. It means so many batshit crazy things at once that it’s hard to even note every facet of that incandescent disco ball of madness. It means Phil Mickelson is either hard up for cash enough to run into the arms of Saudi oil money, or so irate with a bunch of golf bureaucrats that he’s willing to partner with guys who use bonesaws to dismember their political opponents.”
Perhaps strangely only includes a single event in Saudi Arabia itself.
Like the cut being literal, instead of metaphorical, as a nod to the Saudi approach to capital punishment.
This holds only as long as a substantial number of players don’t break ranks. If 50 or 100 PGA Tour players went to the Saudis, the calculus changes entirely. That seems unlikely.
Or the signficantly darker and less funny, The Last Duel.
The US, for very obvious reasons relating to American race relations in the 30s, didn’t come out looking great either.