How LIV players can reduce Saudis’ ‘sports washing’


Professional golf is breaking out before our eyes and threatening the future of the PGA Tour. LIV Golf – the junior tour funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, attracts more top golfers and media personalities to its ranks every week. With seemingly endless money flowing from the opaque fund controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it appears that LIV is here to stay, at least for now. On Wednesday, the Tour announced a program of 14 events in 2023, including a team competition. And with every top player that jumps, the odds of a LIV becoming a legitimate contender on the PGA Tour increase.

This horrifies some in the sports world, but the distaste is not uniform. Basketball legend Charles Barkley, discussing the broadcast role with LIV, told the New York Post that it represented “selective anger” and noted: “When you play a professional sport, you’re kind of taking money from a bad cause. »

Barkley’s justification recalls a long history of debates about the government’s “sportswashing” – the use of sport to hide or distract from human rights abuses and oppression. In 1936, for example, some Americans opposed sending American athletes, including track and field star Jesse Owens, to the Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler in Berlin.

However, these conversations were always complex. Today, Americans celebrate Owens for his bravery in winning four gold medals in Berlin, defying Nazi racism, but they generally ignore the rest of the story: All in all, the 1936 Olympics were a resounding success for the Führer , probably the most successful episode of athleticism. before.

However, athletes have another option besides simply choosing to abstain or participate in the sports wash. While it is unclear whether LIV players can contractually comment on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, history suggests that athletes can seek common ground by participating in controversial sporting events, then use the ensuing spotlight to publicly discuss the to talk change. In fact, Lee Elder, a pioneering African-American golfer, did just that in the 1970s in relation to South Africa and explained the pros and cons of this course of action.

Elder was a standout on the PGA Tour and was easily the best African-American golfer of the 1970s. When he returned to play later in his teens, he rose through the ranks to become one of the top 10 black players. to compete on the PGA Tour after the desegregation of the tour in 1961. He won four times from 1974 to 1978, helped the United States win the Ryder Cup in 1979 and competed for the Masters in 1975. But despite the racism he faced, elder and his pioneering role in the integration of PGA Tour, golfer is not active. He was quiet and introverted – even boring – he hardly shared himself with the media and rarely criticized anything in public. Simply put, Elder was the perfect golfer on the PGA Tour.

But in 1971, Elder suffered a setback when he accepted an invitation from white South African golf star Gary Player—and the apartheid government of South Africa—to compete in the South African Championships. The whole world knew it was a blatant act of sporting mercy at a time when apartheid was facing an unprecedented global sporting boycott. For example, South Africa was banned from participating in the Olympic Games from 1964 to 1988, and white South African athletes were constantly threatened with being banned from a range of sports. Many Americans supported anti-apartheid boycotts in South Africa and neighboring Rhodesia.

In the United States, Player is openly loved and supported by most fans of his peers on the PGA Tour, including African-American players such as Elder and Charlie Seaford. However, although he later regretted that Blair openly supported apartheid in his homeland in 1971, he even went so far as to praise it in his 1966 autobiography, realizing that the South African government was attempting to capitalize on the popularity The player cleared. their system, and pleaded with the sheikh not to accept the invitation. White and black sportswriters warned that he would be just a pawn. Anti-apartheid organizations begged him not to go. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who ruled himself out of South Africa, called the golf call a “hoax”.

But Sheikh went there. His public statement announcing the trip emphasized that he was “not political” and had no intention of “engaging in domestic and domestic political disagreements.” He toured Africa for three weeks in November and December 1971, including Liberia, Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya (he even won the Nigeria Open).

As expected, his time in South Africa attracted the most attention and criticism. At Huddle Park Golf Course in Johannesburg, an exhibition of an estimated 10,000 people watched a player meet in the South African PGA Championship. A small group of black South African golfers also participated, and he was the first to be allowed to compete alongside white players in this tour’s history.

The sheikh’s critics were largely correct in their criticism. He went on a sports washing trip which was mostly what the South African regime wanted. To the chagrin of the anti-apartheid movement, he established a lifelong friendship with a player and publicly opposed US economic sanctions against South Africa.

However, Elder refused to be a mere pawn of the oppressive government. In a small but significant way, he turned the visit into something else, ultimately making the trip on his own terms. For example, he diligently negotiated for the race-related show to be integrated at Huddle Park – also the first PGA event in South Africa. Behind the scenes, he asked to meet the imprisoned Nelson Mandela (which he refused). Perhaps most significantly, it was in Johannesburg that Elder boldly told local reporters that he would refuse to return until the apartheid regime was abolished. These honest moments were not in the plans. “I felt I always left something out there in South Africa,” he said later. By 1975, he had also raised tens of thousands of dollars to support golf and education programs in South Africa.

Elder’s trip is largely forgotten today, overshadowed by many intrepid athletes and their subsequent trips to Africa, such as Ashe’s visit to South Africa in 1973 and Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974. The trips helped them speak early, often and eloquently, on a range of issues, from racism and colonialism to human rights more broadly.

It wasn’t Sheikh Ali or Ash or Owens. But with his understated style – one shared by many professional golfers – he manages to find holes in the scheme’s plans, and in the small moments and spaces where he can assert himself and send his own message. “Thanks to Elder, there are 40 professional black South African golfers,” said Jett. The magazine told its readers in 1975. “Which is almost four times what the United States can be proud of.”

For Elder, the trip sparked a long-standing interest in South Africa and its black citizens. He finally visited in 1989, on the eve of the fall of apartheid, and spoke stronger words. Although his stature may have been modest compared to the more prominent athletes, Elder’s actions were notable in the golf world. By comparison, in the 1980s many of the game’s most famous players defied the international sports boycott (and the warnings of the US State Department) to compete in South Africa’s annual Gary Player “Million Dollar Challenge”. Sun City Country Club, including Jack Nicklaus. Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Raymond Floyd.

The golfers who have joined LIV have clearly made a commitment that goes much deeper than just showing up – they have signed lucrative multi-million dollar contracts funded by the Saudi government and some stars will directly, such as Front Office Sports reported on Wednesday, equity in their LIV teams. But Lee Elder’s story sets a model for LIV participants to take the money while also finding the courage to speak in a humble way, especially when the LIV tour leaves for Saudi Arabia in October.

Professional sports offer an unprecedented platform, and with a few unconventional words or a simple pin, an LIV player can easily undermine what Saudi Arabia believes they paid for. It is natural if they choose to do so.

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