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LIV: Making golf the 54th sport to sellout

If I asked you what Phil Mickleson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia all have in common, what would you say? Well, some of you might say you have no idea who they are. Those familiar with the game of golf would likely say something along the lines of them being legends in the game of golf or all being champions of the most prestigious tournament in golf, The Masters. Those who pay close attention to the golf world, however, might identify them as three of the most prominent golfers to defect from the established PGA Tour to the new LIV Golf Tour. 

A great deal of you may be wondering why you should care. And that is totally fair. I did not expect to be writing a column about sports, let alone golf. The LIV Golf Tour is important, however, because of who runs it — The Saudi Arabia Sovereign Wealth Fund. The Saudis created the LIV Golf Tour in order to rival the American PGA Tour that has existed without a serious challenger for decades. 

Now, there are serious grievances to be had with the PGA Tour and the way it treats its players. This includes the fact that they do not disclose how much of their profits they keep and that they do not pay a significant number of players in each tournament (essentially those that play the worst). This is part of the argument those players who chose to go LIV have made. Some of the players have even gone as far as suing the PGA Tour for anti-competitive practices when they were suspended for playing on the LIV Tour.

Along with these grievances, many LIV golfers include platitudes about ‘growing’ and ‘transforming’ the game of golf as their last line of defense. Yet, when it comes down to it, we all know why the players went to LIV: money. Dustin Johnson has made $75 million over the course of his 15 year career on the PGA Tour, which is the third greatest amount of money ever made on the PGA tour. It is rumored that he will make $125 million to join LIV golf. Phil Mickleson has made the second greatest amount of money ever on the PGA Tour, $95 million, and his contract with LIV is said to be worth $200 million. The PGA’s highest ever earner, Tiger Woods, has made $125 million on the Tour. LIV is rumored to have offered Woods $800 million. Yes, $800 million. Unlike the other two, Woods declined. 

So, this is where the controversy begins. First, some critics, including fellow PGA Tour golfers like Rory McIlroy, do not like the prospect of an exorbitant amount of money being poured in to change the direction of the game. More importantly, I would argue, many people take issue with the idea that these golfers would agree to play on a tour sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government. The Saudi government is known for numerous human rights violations including the recent killing of a US based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

I do not have a strong opinion on the former, but I can tell you that every inch of me agrees with the latter of these criticisms. The Saudi government does many bad things, and these golfers are allowing themselves to be bought off so that the Saudi government can sportswash its image and direct the attention away from these problems. Yet, there are a couple of things that give me pause before using every bad word possible to describe these golfers. 

First, these golfers are being offered life-changing, and sometimes generational, wealth. I am not just talking about Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickleson, who with their PGA Tour earnings and sponsorship deals have made plenty of money in their careers, but also the lesser known players. For example, James Piot, the 2021 US Amateur Champion, who is only 23 years old, was offered $1 million. Another key point: the cumulative prize money for only eight tournaments is $225 million. A player can make up $4 million in prize money based on their performance at each individual tournament, and each player is guaranteed to make at least $120,000. Yes, the player that gets last will make six-figures for three days of work.

Second, Saudi money is already all over the sporting world, and even other golf tournaments. Saudi Aramco is one of the biggest sponsors of the Women’s European Golf Tour. It is also extremely prominent in the sport of Formula One. Now, I am not someone in a position to decide whether or not this is a good strategy on the part of those organizations, but it does cause me to wonder what makes LIV golf all that different. It is important to note some nuances including that there isn’t a strong alternative for Formula 1 drivers and these other leagues are not exclusively bankrolled by the Saudis. Yet, these nuances do not change the fact that a significant source of revenue for many existing sports leagues is the Saudi Government or one of its entities. This is not to mention that the 2022 Men’s World Cup is being held in Qatar and the Olympics were held in China earlier this year. FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, was openly bribed to put the tournament in Qatar, another country known for its human rights violations particularly against immigrant workers. And, I probably don’t need to mention it, but China does some bad stuff too, especially to its Muslim Uyghur population. Yet, no one seems to be calling on participants to boycott these competitions. So, why should these golfers be held to a higher standard?

My point is not that these golfers should be absolved of their culpability in aiding Saudi sportswashing. I find it pretty disingenuous that Phil Mickleson called the Saudis “scary motherf******,” but is more than happy to take their $200 million and continue on his way. My point is, rather, that the criticism of LIV golfers seems like a double standard. 

Beyond the leagues themselves, by and large we expect athletes to do what is in their best financial interest. Alexander Isak, one of the most talented young soccer players in the world, just signed a contract with Newcastle United, the English Premier League club owned by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund. No one batted an eye. Kylian Mbappe, a soccer player widely considered as one of the best two or three in the world, just signed the most lucrative contract the soccer world has ever seen, to play for Paris Saint Germain, the French club owned by a subsidiary of the Qatari Sovereign Wealth Fund. And, while some people criticized the decision of Mbappe to stay at PSG, it was largely due to his flirting with Real Madrid before choosing to stay rather than him taking Qatari money. Why is that? Maybe because it’s a little less obvious, maybe because people don’t want to think about it: I’m not sure. All I know is that if we are to draw a line against human rights violations through sports, then we should expect that line to be drawn in all competitions, not just LIV golf. 

To make my point clear — criticize LIV golf all you want, just make sure you don’t turn a blind eye to all the other dirty money pouring into sports because it’s a little harder to see.

Patrick Condon is a Junior in Siegfried Hall. He is currently serving as the Vice President of BridgeND.

BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets on Tuesdays at 5pm in Duncan Student Center W246 to learn about and discuss current political issues, and can be reached at bridgend@nd.edu or on Twitter @bridge_ND.

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