The word “sportswashing” has been used so often by critics of the international business of athletics that it’s almost become a cliché. For the uninitiated, this is when a PR-friendly sporting event is used by a nation—usually one led by a murderous, authoritarian leadership—as a propaganda tool to provoke good feelings and associations with its regime. Famous examples of this include the 1936 Olympics held in Hitler’s Germany or Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s hosting arguably boxing’s most famous fight, the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Yet users of this phrase seem to reserve it for mostly non-Western dictatorships (particularly China).
But sportswashing needs to be understood as something that is indulged in by all governments—especially Western governments—when sports are used as a tool to achieve anti-poor, pro-development policy goals that people would otherwise oppose. Los Angeles, for instance, is hosting the 2028 Summer Olympics, and now as part of preparations, the city is attacking the unhoused population. LA would probably be persecuting the unhoused whether the Olympics were coming or not, but the shine of the games provides both reason and cover. When athletes refuse to compete in Israel, it is a protest against sportswashing, against lending legitimacy to their occupation of Palestine.
Sportswashing is very much in the news, because of the new LIV golf tour underwritten by Saudi Arabia. Some of the biggest names in the sport, including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, have taken as much as nine figures of Saudi money for the mighty purpose of getting paid, no matter the moral implications. Mickelson now infamously spoke to this several weeks ago, when he said the Saudis “are scary motherfuckers to get involved with. We know they killed [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. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics, because we, the players, had no recourse.”
In other words, Mickelson, somewhere in his own mind, might be consorting with some dangerous characters but he is nobly breaking the PGA’s cartel-like control of the game. He looks in the mirror and sees Curt Flood with a putter, with that fortune he’s receiving in payment just the spoils of war. This is, of course, nonsense. People like Flood, the baseball player who fought for free agency, risked everything to win freedom of labor—and did not secure a bag of cash for their troubles.
This is typical for the politics of golf: very conservative, allergic to social responsibility, resentful of progress, and always out for the buck.
In addition to Saudi Arabia’s horrific human rights record, it is now understood that prominent Saudis had significant involvement in the planning of the attacks of 9/11, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were in fact Saudi. This reality has pushed an injection of anger and nationalism in the backlash against Mickelson and his compatriots. The group 9/11 Families United sent an open letter to the golfers blasting them and, as Sports Illustrated reported, “expressing outrage that the group would become business partners with the new league and participate in sportswashing.”
As Terry Strada, the group’s national chair, whose husband was killed on 9/11, wrote:
Given Saudi Arabia’s role in the death of our loved ones and those injured on 9/11—your fellow Americans—we are angered that you are so willing to help the Saudis cover up this history in their request for “respectability.” When you partner with the Saudis, you become complicit with their whitewash, and help give them the reputational cover they so desperately crave—and are willing to pay handsomely to manufacture.
As for Mickelson, he stammered a response about having “deep empathy” with those who lost loved ones on 9/11.
Strada then came back with another comment: “Phil knows exactly what he’s doing, and he and his fellow LIV golfers should be ashamed. They are helping the Saudi regime ‘sportswash’ their reputation in return for tens of millions of dollars, at the very same time our government is rolling out more damning evidence of Saudi culpability in the 9/11 attacks.”
Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, piled on by saying, “You’d have to be living under a rock to not understand the implications of involving yourself with the Saudis.” There is no greater sign of Mickelson’s depravity than his having allowed the PGA Tour to adopt the moral high ground, both in its comments and when it suspended the LIV players indefinitely. The PGA is an organization built on a history of racism, sexism, and exclusion. It has also endorsed tournaments in places that engage in their own sportswashing and have poor records on human rights. The Commercial Bank Qatar Masters has been going strong for 25 years. Their brazenly hypocritical, cartel-like arrogance has earned the resentment of many players. But leaving the PGA and rushing into the arms of the Saudi Arabian ruling family is like going from the frying pan and into the incinerator. All of these people deserve each other. But if this episode furthers the understanding of sportswashing and its uses, then—especially with the World Cup in Qatar and the LA Olympics looming—we can be better prepared to combat the next round of propaganda.