Is there a Way for LIV Golfers to Avoid Helping Saudi Arabia "Sportswash" its Human Rights Abuses?Roundup
tags: Saudi Arabia, human rights, golf
Lane Demas is a professor of history at Central Michigan University. He is the author of Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf and Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football.
Professional golf is splintering before our eyes, threatening the future of the PGA Tour. Every week, LIV Golf — the upstart tour funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — lures more top players and golf media figures to its ranks. 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 14-event schedule in 2023, including a team competition. And with each top player who jumps, the odds increase that LIV becomes a legitimate competitor to the PGA Tour.
This horrifies some in the sports world, but the revulsion is not uniform. Basketball legend Charles Barkley, who is discussing a broadcasting role with LIV, told the New York Post that it represented “selective outrage” and observed: “If you are in pro sports, you are taking some type of money from not a great cause.”
Barkley’s justification calls to mind a long history of debates over government “sportswashing” — the use of sports to cloak or distract from human rights violations and repression. In 1936, for example, some Americans opposed sending U.S. athletes, including track star Jesse Owens, to the Olympic Games hosted by Adolf Hitler in Berlin.
Yet these conversations have always been complicated. Americans today rightly celebrate Owens for his courage in winning four gold medals in Berlin, challenging Nazi racism, but they usually ignore the rest of the story: overall, the 1936 Olympics were a rousing success for the Fuhrer, arguably the most successful episode of sportswashing ever.
Athletes, however, have another option besides simply choosing to abstain or partake in sportswashing. While it is unclear whether LIV players can contractually comment on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, history indicates that athletes can seek a middle ground by participating in contested sporting events, and then using the spotlight that follows to speak out for change. In fact, Lee Elder, a trailblazing African American golfer, did precisely this in the 1970s when it came to South Africa, exposing the benefits and detriments of this course of action.
Elder was an elite PGA Tour player and easily the top African American golfer of the 1970s. After taking up the game later in his teens, he worked his way up from caddying to become one of the first 10 Black players to compete on the PGA Tour after the circuit desegregated in 1961. He won four times from 1974-1978, helped the U.S. win the 1979 Ryder Cup and integrated the Masters Tournament in 1975. Yet, despite the racism Elder confronted and his role as a trailblazer in integrating the PGA Tour, the golfer was no activist. He was quiet and withdrawn — boring, even — hardly sharing himself with the media and rarely criticizing anything publicly. Which is to say, Elder was the quintessential PGA Tour golfer.
But in 1971, Elder confronted backlash when he accepted an invitation from White South African golf star Gary Player — and South Africa’s apartheid government — to compete in the South African PGA Championship. The whole world knew this was a blatant act of sportswashing to curry favor at a time when the apartheid regime was facing an unprecedented global sports boycott. South Africa, for example, was banned from participating in the Olympics from 1964 to 1988, and White South African athletes faced ongoing threats to bar them from competing in a range of sports. Many Americans supported the anti-apartheid boycotts of South Africa and neighboring Rhodesia.
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