Sports

Phil Mickelson’s controversy and Saudi ‘sportswashing,’ explained


Phil Mickelson is in hot water. Now he’s backpedaling, and trying to dance around astonishing, insensitive comments made to author Allen Shipnuck. In the middle of a huge controversy of the golfer’s own making, Mickelson’s sponsors are jumping ship — separating themselves from the athlete.

At the heart of all this is an existential threat to Mickelson’s carefully crafted public image, cultivated and maintained for decades. For many it was the first glimpse of who the golfer is when the cameras are off, and it was ugly. Now we go back to how this all unfolded to explain how we so quickly went from Mickelson being a face of golf, to a pariah.

A battle is underway for the future of golf

The PGA Tour has been the home of professional golf in the United States since 1968, running and operating all tournaments (outside of majors) inside the country. The player owned and operated entity has maintained a careful balancing act to keep the numbers to run tournaments, while keeping the handful of elite, household-name players happy.

Recently there has been friction, much as there was when the PGA Tour splintered off from the PGA in the 1960s. Those elite players are once again upset with PGA Tour leadership, and wanting an even larger slice of the pie when it comes to revenue. As writer Alex Kirshner wrote for Slate:

“The tour’s internal class divide cracked the door open, and other factors have piled in to threaten the circuit’s unchallenged status as the best tour in the world. The tour leadership’s mismanagement is one such factor. Another is that golf is a great way for a bad actor—say, a shady real estate developer or a murderous crown prince—to launder his reputation in the West.”

Enter Saudi Arabia, and LIV Golf. It is an upstart organization with Greg Norman as its public face, looking to lure top players away from the PGA Tour. LIV Golf is offering huge money, and unparalleled scheduling freedom to have top golfers play in a Super League, backed and funded by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. It’s part of the nation’s “sportswashing” campaign, which involves using sport as a tool to repair a nation’s bad reputation through hosting sporting events, and using athletes as mouthpieces to extol the virtues of the host.

The Saudi government has done this with the Saudi Arabia GP in Formula 1, WWE with its yearly “Crown Jewel” events, the Diriyah Tennis Cup, and now it has its eyes on golf — all in an effort to gain sympathy from largely western audiences. It’s all an attempt to distract from the country’s human rights atrocities, while having people ignore its authoritarian grip on the world’s oil markets.

What Phil Mickelson did was say the quiet part out loud

All of these big-money deals have one thing in common: Money over principles. Engaging in Saudi sportswashing was an iffy prospect before 2018, and reprehensible since then. That’s the year journalist Jamal Khashoggi was strangled, dismembered, and had his body dissolved in acid after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The western world struggled to unify a response to the horrific crime. Terrified of upsetting the Saudi government, whom they rely on for oil production, there was no true international condemnation. The United States Senate passed a resolution to hold the Crown Prince responsible for Khashoggi’s death, only to have President Trump refuse to acknowledge the resolution, as he played a game of “maybe, maybe not” when asked about the journalist’s death.

“It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
— Donald Trump

Most of the west were appeased when a Saudi show-trial convicted five men of Khashoggi’s death, but failed to punish any of the decision makers inside the government, or implicate the Crown Prince for any role in the murder. The verdict was called “whitewashing” by Amnesty International, but for the west, business went on as usual.

Enter Mickelson, who explained to Alan Shipnuck why he would consider joining the Saudi-backed Super League.

“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” he said. “We know 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.”

That right there is everything you need to know in one quote. Mickelson acknowledges the atrocious human rights record and actions by the nation, he has the awareness to know that it’s fundamentally wrong to participate in a sportswashing campaign, but tacks on “but hey, it’s a great opportunity.” It’s everything that’s normally left unsaid, or ignored when it comes to holding sporting events in Saudi Arabia, in taking the Crown Prince’s money. It firmly establishes that to Mickelson, the ends justifies the means, no matter the cost.

Now, the golfer is in hot water. In one interview he managed to not only upset his new Saudi backers, but also show the world that money and power matter more than principles, which runs counter to the public image Mickelson has crafted.

On Tuesday he released a statement that appeared to apologize more to the Saudis for insulting them, than address his willingness to engage in a sportswashing campaign.

In addition, Mickelson positioned himself as the victim, saying his comments were made “off the record” and “taken out of context,” a claim which has been categorically denied by Shipnuck.

In the wake of the comments it was announced that long-time sponsor KMPG was ending its relationship with Mickelson. Players once rumored to be in talks with LIV Golf and the Saudis are now distancing themselves from the Super League, leaving Mickelson and Norman as the primary voices in favor of the new league. It all could collapse because of Phil’s comments. Approaching the league now is nuclear.

The PGA Tour has already said it will ban players for life should they defect to the Super League — but more importantly the court of public opinion is now seeing first-hand the lengths Mickelson will go to get the control and power he seeks. Anyone who touches the new LIV Golf league would be risking their sponsors, image and reputation — all for financial gain, and those previously unaware of the sportswashing campaign in Saudi Arabia, are now seeing everything in a new light.

Mickelson showed the world who he really is, and where his priorities are. Not only in his comments to Shipnuck, but in his sycophantic response, which was designed to ensure his new backers heard his apology. It was an opportunity to admit he was wrong, distance himself from the sportswashing campaign, and pursue a new path toward his goal of reforming the PGA Tour in a healthy way. Instead he’s doubling down on “disruption.” In the end the only disruption caused by this is the one to Phil’s career.





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