Saudi-backed organization LIV Golf recently sealed a deal with the PGA Tour, sparking concerns over its role as a “purveyor of sportswashing,” a term referring to efforts made to rebrand a nation’s tarnished image through sports. Critics have slammed the move, citing the Saudi government’s track record on human rights issues and the fact that LIV Golf is bankrolled by the Public Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund with virtually unlimited resources. However, the fact that business with Saudi entities has been a long-standing occurrence in sports has somewhat normalized the situation. The Olympics, for instance, were held in Nazi Germany in 1936 and in China twice in the last 15 years. Qatar’s estimated $220 billion outlay to host the World Cup was widely seen as an effort to cleanse the country’s history of human-rights abuses.
LIV Golf’s efforts have also come under fire, particularly when Phil Mickelson, one of the tour’s major signings, called the Saudis “scary (expletives)” when discussing the Saudi-backed killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Members of families of 9/11 victims who blame Saudi Arabia for the terrorist attack have criticized Mickelson and other players who have accepted sponsorship deals from LIV Golf. Despite objections, the deal between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf stands to give the Saudis a foothold on a legitimate and popular sporting enterprise in the U.S., while sparing them from having to publicly disclose details of their business dealings in the country.
Major players in sports who have done business with countries with shoddy human rights records, like Saudi Arabia, have faced scrutiny and objections from critics. However, as Professor Stephen Ross of Penn State University’s Study of Sports in Society Center pointed out, where to draw the line when it comes to dealing with such countries is up for debate. Ross argues that this is where the “sportswashing” debate can lead, with some detractors questioning why similar objections are not raised when the PGA holds some of its biggest events in Florida, a state recently under fire for its controversial new laws on abortion and transgender-affirming care.
As countries from the Middle East, which are increasingly taking a greater stake in soccer, and other sports, weigh in on sports-related business deals, the debate over the role sport plays in state business relations will continue.