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LIV Golf League Accused of ‘Sportswashing’

Sports

Phil Mickelson tees off during a practice round ahead of LIV Golf's inaugural tournament. | Image by PA Images via Getty Images

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On June 9, Saudi Arabia unveiled 42 players as members of their new LIV Golf League at the first of their invitation-only series at the Centurion Club. A new golf league is not unheard of. The PGA Tour in America was initially formed when players split from “the PGA of America in 1967 to form the Tournament Players Division”.

However, the formation of LIV Golf League sparked a lot of controversy in the golf world. When rumors of its formation came about in the fall of 2019, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan “issued a warning” of possible suspension and lifetime ban to any player who open sided with the rival league.


The controversy with LIV Golf League is tied to the accusations of it being “sportswashing” for Saudi Arabia. Sportswashing is a portmanteau of “sports” and “whitewashing” which refers to a situation “when a country uses sports disingenuously to launder its reputation globally, and simultaneously distract from” any actions they have taken that may be viewed negatively in terms of human-rights.

In other words, if the media flips to the LIV Golf League being the primary highlight of what Saudi Arabia is doing, the hope is that it will distract from anything else they are doing under the radar that may be less than favorable.

While golfers are technically independent contractors and can play with whatever league they wish while fronting the cost for their own “travel, caddy, and tournament entry fees, coaching costs” among other things, their reputation with a given league can determine whether or not they will be allowed to play. Since there is often a lot of personal investment required for golfers to play, it is not surprising that the offer for higher compensation would be enough to sway them to another league — in this case LIV Golf.

Enter Saudi Arabia’s incredibly high offers. Golf legend Phil Mickelson, 51, was offered and accepted a contract with LIV Golf League for $200 million, “more than double” what he made in over 30 years with the PGA Tour. Mickelson was not alone in receiving and accepting outlandish offers to be poached from the PGA to LIV Golf. Among the new male golfers that now represent LIV Golf are Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, Talor Gooch, Martin Kaymer, Kevin Na, Louis Oosthuizen, Sergio Garcia and more.

This new money comes at a price. Mickelson was quoted back in February of 2022 stating that while he happily accepted the money from the Saudis, he thinks they are “scary mother——s” with a “horrible record on human rights,” for committing heinous crimes such as executing “people for being gay”. Despite him coming out to say these things, Mickelson stands by his decision to go with LIV Golf amid sportwashing claims by stating that his real reason were his issues with the PGA.

“They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse… the Saudi money has finally given us [male golfers] leverage. I’m not sure I even want [LIV’s Super Golf League] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.” Mickelson said.

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