Are you not entertained?
Authoritarians love to use the sports we love.
BY HENRY ABBOTT
Why don’t you guys want to go into the attic?
After high school, I worked as a waiter in a fancy golf club. The clubhouse attic had all these little individual quarters, almost like hotel rooms. No, you couldn’t sleep over—they were mostly used for storage by the time I worked there. Often it was me who had to visit the attic when, say, we needed more styrofoam cups. Most of the kitchen staff refused to go up there.
After maybe my fifth trip in a week, I again asked why no one wanted to go into the attic.
Because it’s haunted by the ghosts of prostitutes who were murdered up there.
What the …?
A kid whose mom worked there—and who kind of appointed himself the building historian— laughed, and said it was a different time. He pointed out that people arrived by horse and buggy back then, as if that explained anything. Hahaha.
I thought about what I had already seen, though. Women were literally banned from the men’s lounge … well, except for those much younger women who somehow gained entry. Drinking and driving all the time.
None of it made me like golf.
Later, I learned a lot about Bob Hope and the amazing ways Americans were tricked into giving rich people tax breaks from this episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. Also, aren’t golf clothes the worst clothes?
So, full disclosure: Maybe I’m not the best person to judge the LIV Tour, which is Saudi Arabia’s brazen attempt to take over global professional golf with bundles of cash. The LIV Tour has done wonders to raise an issue that concerns TrueHoop deeply: sportswashing.
Sportswashing (or, often, sportwashing) is a term coined by Amnesty International in 2018. A leader in reporting on sportswashing has been journalist Karim Zidan, who described it in The Guardian in 2019 as “authoritarian regimes using sports to manipulate their international image and wash away their human rights record.” Zidan hosted a 2020 conversation with, among others, Garry Kasparov, which did a lot to sketch out for the world how sportswashing works.
Now the LIV Tour is taking it to a new level, and has even inspired an excellent episode of the Freakonomics podcast.
One of LIV Tour’s most prominent celebrities is Phil Mickelson. (Incidentally, years ago, I stood in a locker room as Jason Kidd told several other All-Stars that Mickelson was his guy.) Author Alan Shipnuck is on Freakonomics describing an interview he had with Mickelson who, he says, “was quite candid” in discussing the Saudis:
He called them “scary motherfuckers.” And he admitted that it’s just sportswashing, and that we know they killed Jamal Khashoggi, and we know they execute people for being gay over there, but nevertheless, it’s just too good an opportunity to pass up.
Huh … okay. So, maybe the washing part of the sportswashing is lost on this particular spokesperson.
But anyway, I think it’s worth considering the angle here. How much is this costing the Saudi Royal Family, and why is this golf investment worth it to them? The Freakonomics podcast has many answers.
Leaders are more focused on keeping their positions than we think. (I have read my Robert Caro! I know this story goes well beyond Saudi Arabia.)
Neither the Saudi Royal Family nor Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”) would likely lead a democratic Saudi Arabia. As it stands, though, the descendants of Saudi Arabia’s founding king have been making the key decisions, and controlling the oil, since the country was founded in 1932. (Not long thereafter, the kingdom went about building better relations with the United States, and the defense industry. Sources say their secret point person, Adnan Khashoggi, eventually became a mentor to Jeffrey Epstein.)
A ton of effort goes into consolidating power. The royal family has spent lavishly on weapons, security, and prisons. Political parties, generally, have been banned. (When political parties are illegal, you’ve got some scared leaders!) Not long after the Arab Spring, when that region’s leaders got overthrown by livid citizens organizing on Twitter, the Saudi kingdom had spies working at Twitter, allegedly digging up particulars on critics of the regime. Efforts must be taken to maintain control.
The exact playbook is a little hard to understand at times, but let’s examine the pattern of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman:
Gained so much equity and influence in places like Silicon Valley that a Google founder took him on a personal campus tour
Had a troublesome journalist assassinated and many dissidents incarcerated
Rounded up, incarcerated, intimidated essentially all of the remaining Saudi power structure.
Advancing Saudi interests seems secondary to blunting the influence of those who would threaten control.
Now … golf. How has golf become a part of that?
It has been happening at least since ancient Rome. After Nero did some dastardly stuff (seizing a burned part of Rome as personal palace grounds) regular Romans got a little riled up, which made the aristocrats nervous. So one of Nero’s successors, Vespasian kicked off a giant program to buy off hearts and minds with an elaborate sports stadium—the Colosseum! People got snacks and drinks and entertainment and, although the building was only finished after his death, Vespasian came to seem like an alright guy. He also did some other authoritarian things like creating a propaganda machine and bribing famous writers to say nice things about him. He gave the people sports, as a gift, so that he might maintain his grip on power. The sentiment, to me, is a bit like a cheating husband showing up with jewelry. Jewelry is one thing, a bad marriage is another. It’s a big choice to take the deal.
Many have followed suit. The 1936 Olympics cemented Hitler’s place on the global stage. “Nazi Germany used the 1936 Olympic Games for propaganda purposes,” says the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The Nazis promoted an image of a new, strong, and united Germany while masking the regime’s targeting of Jews and Roma as well as Germany’s growing militarism.”
The 1980 Olympics and the 2018 World Cup conveyed enormous political benefits to the leaders of Russia. In 2008, the Beijing Summer Olympics were advertised as “a force for good” but instead featured journalist arrests, migrant labor abuses and the repression of civil society. Chinese and Qatari authorities have spent vast sums on public relations to win over fans.
In the Guardian, Zidan notes that Saudi Arabia’s commitment to global sports came from a 2016 directive from Mohammed bin Salman:
While Saudi Arabia’s pivot towards a more liberal society is a welcome change for the conservative kingdom, it also raises important questions about the government’s relatively sudden interest in sports and whether it could be construed as a soft power tactic to help distract from the kingdom’s ongoing human rights abuses and the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen—a war that killed thousands of Yemeni civilians and has left 14 million people at risk of starvation.
More recently, Saudi Arabia’s sports-centric lobbying offensive has been the result of an urgent need for the kingdom to rebrand itself following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was reportedly killed and dismembered with a bone-saw. Saudi’s attorney general later stated that the murder was premeditated, and the CIA concluded that Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
The PR firm the kingdom hired in the effort filed a report saying that they had set up meetings, calls, and events featuring kingdom officials and, among others, the commissioners of every major sports league (presumably including Adam Silver), Kobe Bryant, Madison Square Garden, and ESPN.
This is what I have in mind as sportswriter Karen Crouse, one of the commentators on the Freakonomics podcast, makes this point:
It’s interesting to me that we are dissecting this in a way that we don’t dissect matters far more important, like what is happening in Yemen right now. … Can we please give the same oxygen that we’re giving this topic to some other areas in which there is Saudi money floating around?
She’s right that Yemen matters more than golf, generally. But the sports question, for sports fans, is: Do we let sports hypnotize us into thinking questionable leaders are okay?
I see it like this: People have always overlooked many critical stories, very much including Yemen. I studied media theory at NYU at a time when professor Neal Postman was famous for his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Regular people don’t obsess over most news stories because we’re doing other stuff like waiting in airport security lines, coaching little league, looking for our airpods, or … watching sports on television.
That’s why this LIV Tour is an important new level of the game. Authoritarianism is tolerated when our attention is elsewhere. It’s clear most of us will ignore what fails to appear on our screens. Will we also get sports fans to take the deal when the sportswashing is front and center? When the person in the big photo in the friendly Saudi press says he is sportswashing for scary motherfuckers? When someone says, Hey, didn’t they build the Colosseum so we wouldn’t overthrow the emperor?
Remember the Vladimir Putin friend who owned the Uralkali Formula One team—the one they had to excommunicate when Putin invaded Ukraine? What about the period before that, when Putin was also dastardly, but getting a pass on the global stage? That was a period when the sportswashing was working.
Yes, we said with our actions, if “Drive to Survive” is fun enough to watch, we won’t make a fuss about however the Mazepin family has made that money.
One of the most incredible examples of sportswashing comes from reported double-agent spy-oligarch-fixer Shabtai Kalmanovich. Kalmanovich had the most complicated business life imaginable, and served time for doing about a fifteenth of what he has been accused of over the course of his career. But he also invested in several basketball teams, including Ekaterinburg, a Russian women’s basketball team that once starred Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. There’s a beautiful podcast (The Spy Who Signed Me) about Kalmanovich’s charm, and his relationship with his stars.
He was the sunny face of Russia’s venture into women’s basketball. But when he was shot 10 times and killed instantly in his Mercedes while waiting for the light to turn green, investigators said the murder looked like a contract killing—one likely linked to his business activities. Not every business environment is safe. In case we needed a reminder, Brittney Griner was playing for that very same team, Ekaterinburg, when the war in Ukraine began. Griner has been detained in Russia for months.
The bet from the powerful in the back room is: A decent sports investment will help everyone turn a blind eye to the ghosts in the attic. Fans, leagues, media … plenty of people take the deal.
Thank you for reading TrueHoop.