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Sand Traps

The Grotesque Sportswashing of the Saudi Golf League

The clumsy kickoff of this ill-starred competitor of the PGA has been a window into a tawdriness that infects international sports.

Golfers Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson looking normal at an event for Saudi Arabia's new LIV golf league.
Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
Golfers Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson looking normal at a event for Saudi Arabia’s new LIV golf league

What’s the latest news from the wild intersection of international sports and despotic regimes? Well, the Saudi Arabian–funded breakaway golf league known as LIV is off to a wretched start. And in case you didn’t know there was such a thing as “the Saudi Arabian–funded breakaway golf league,” well, strap in. LIV represented a grand coming together of interests around the common goal of founding a lavish and lucrative competitor to the Professional Golf Association. This new venture was to feature (and handsomely compensate) some of the game’s best-known names: Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Sergio Garcia, among others. In return, Saudi Arabia’s rulers hoped that these fabled sportsmen’s reputations would burnish their own deservedly awful one. You know, the one the Saudis earned for, among other things, the brutal blockade of Yemen and the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Things haven’t gone as planned. And that’s partly because the golfers involved have been uncommonly—if unintentionally—honest about what everyone is truly up to. Mickelson, who is possibly involved in the league because of his substantial gambling debts, kicked things off last November, telling biographer Alan Shipnuck that he knew exactly what the Saudi leaders—particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—were like, but he was happy to help improve their image for the right price.

“They’re scary motherf—ers to get involved with,” the golfer told Shipnuck. “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.” In other words, Mickelson was after leverage, and willing to make a Machiavellian trade in which he could put pressure on the PGA for better terms. In exchange, Saudi Arabia would get some much-needed reputation laundering.

Things have only degenerated from there. In May, golfer and LIV collaborator Greg Norman shrugged off the murder of Khashoggi by telling reporters, “We’ve all made mistakes.” Meanwhile, the league’s first press conference was an unmitigated disaster, in which reporter Rob Harris, who’d previously made skeptical inquiries about the grimy arrangement, was briefly barred from asking further questions, and golfer Graeme McDowell ended up offering a wan response to the matter: “This has been incredibly polarising.… We all agree up here that the Jamal Khashoggi situation was reprehensible.… But we’re golfers, and speaking personally, I really feel that golf is a force of good in the world.”

Typically, a vicious regime or other bad actor pursues these kinds of acquisitions with more subtlety, promising there will be some distance between itself and the organization it’s acquiring. It’s long been the case that sports leagues and nations eager for more investment—particularly from the practically unlimited wealth of petrostates and their oligarch leaders—are happy to look the other way. But behind all the smoke and mirrors, this is how these arrangements work. There’s a trade: Athletes or teams and the leagues they belong to get money; the country involved gets P.R. The LIV debacle is an uncommonly clear window into how sportswashing really works.

When Saudi Arabia bought Newcastle F.C., one of the English Premier League’s most storied (and mediocre) clubs, last fall, the purchase was cloaked in the flimsiest of deceptions. It wasn’t Saudi Arabia that was buying the club, everyone involved in the sale insisted, but rather Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund—which everyone just decided to pretend had nothing to do with the state and its vicious overlord, Mohammed bin Salman, despite the fact that it is literally the country’s sovereign wealth fund and inextricably tied to the actions of MBS’s regime.

But the Saudi’s Tyneside gambit worked, even after it was revealed that bin Salman pressured British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to push the deal through. Newcastle instantly became one of the richest clubs in the world; many of its fans began showing up to matches in ghutras and thawbs—common clothing for Saudi men. The team began spending lavishly, and the club, which had previously been in the relegation zone, ended the season on an exceptional run of form.

The biggest winner? Saudi Arabia, which got a Premier League franchise on the upswing. The acquisition will undoubtedly help burnish its dismal human rights record; this sort of arrangement previously worked for Russia (2021 Champions League winners Chelsea F.C., which was until recently owned by oligarch Roman Abramovich); Qatar (owners of Paris Saint Germain, whose star player, Kylian Mbappe, is the best player in the world); and the United Arab Emirates (which owns Manchester City, currently the best team in the world—though they still can’t seem to win the Champions League).

Following such acquisitions, the regimes involved typically increase their presence. Nine months after Newcastle’s takeover, no one is pretending that anyone other than Saudi Arabia is running the club or that the benign entity invented to smooth things over was anything more than a temporary fig leaf. Meanwhile, the Saudis are reaping extraordinary benefits from having taken a wayward-but-beloved club on the path to fortune and glory, fueled by the kind of deep pockets that will transform Newcastle from a relative minnow to a major player in this summer’s transfer window. The affection that can be won from fans provides public relations coups for nations that are frequent targets for human rights groups and others. (That said, the benefits can also disappear as quickly as Lionel Messi’s form at PSG. Just ask Abramovich, who was forced to sell Chelsea after Russia invaded Ukraine.)

But aside from the fact that the LIV’s athletes are making an absolute slop mess of talking about their endeavor—by constantly underscoring Saudi Arabia’s murderous despotism—what’s happening with this prospective golf league is no different from what has been happening in international soccer, even if the respective leagues that Chelsea, Manchester City, and PSG belong to want to pretend otherwise. The situation with Chelsea and Ukraine is instructive. Yes, eventually the Premier League and the United Kingdom got round to doing the right thing—but only after Abramovich, Vladimir Putin, Russia, and its oligarchs benefited from owning Chelsea for nearly 20 years. There is no telling what human rights abuses will be excused by Saudi Arabia’s ownership of Newcastle United in some corners. Fans of PSG and Manchester City routinely shrug off their teams’ owners and their turpitude, even as the club’s outward values—wearing rainbow cleats or captain’s armbands, for instance—clash with those of their owners, where homosexuality is regularly criminalized and brutally punished.

LIV may not succeed—and there are signs that it’s already failing. Its launch on Thursday was immediately overshadowed by news that the PGA had suspended the 17 golfers taking part in the breakaway league. No one seems to be paying attention to the league beyond the immense controversy that it has generated. There are few signs at this juncture that it will overtake the PGA.

Nevertheless, the LIV debacle is instructive in that it reveals these scandalous arrangements without any of the usual games or manipulation. The golfers are there to make money. Saudi Arabia is hosting—and paying them handsomely—for some badly needed good publicity. This is how sportswashing always works. Everyone just pretends otherwise. After all, what’s the point of all this blood money if you can’t spend it?