PGA Tour isn’t only sports league to accept morally questionable money

Cash over ethics is commonplace
FILE — People purchase merchandise during the LIV Golf event at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster, N.J., July 28, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

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FILE — People purchase merchandise during the LIV Golf event at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster, N.J., July 28, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

I’m confused by the intense backlash against the PGA Tour for its recent decision to merge with LIV Golf. No doubt, the Saudi Arabian government is attempting to “sportswash” its record of human rights abuses. Yes, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan is a hypocrite for grabbing the money after he criticized golfers who left for LIV and grossly used the families of 9/11 victims to make his point.

All of that is true, so far as it goes. But I’m puzzled because the Tour doing business with morally questionable partners is hardly a unique arrangement in sports.

European soccer and Formula One racing already take money from Saudi leaders despite their dreadful record on human rights. Really, I don’t understand why the Saudi government even needs PR cover at this point. And the PGA Tour hardly is the only sports league to get in bed with governments or corporations responsible for mass human suffering. It’s commonplace.

Lots of powerful people and institutions ran away from the Saudi kingdom’s money in 2018. That’s when Saudi leaders were implicated in the killing of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Most of those who distanced themselves from the Saudis then have since gone running back for the cash. That includes politicians, sports leagues and American universities.

Why would anyone expect the Tour to be any different? Surely, it can’t be because golf is any more principled than other sports. The Tour is a moneymaking entity that does cost/benefit analysis when deciding whether to make business deals. The Tour has decided that the reputational cost of merging with the LIV — it sounds more like LIV is taking over the Tour — is worth the financial benefit.

That’s probably a good bet. There are thriving sports leagues around the world that do business with morally questionable governments and corporations. It happens everywhere, from elite European soccer leagues all the way down to American intercollegiate sports.

That’s why the Tour figures people will decide to watch golf and stop thinking too much about where the money is going. Saudi Arabia already has some direct experience with that.

The government’s sovereign wealth fund purchased the English soccer club Newcastle United in 2021. Critics of the transaction included Khashoggi’s widow. Newcastle fans who felt conflicted about the new ownership probably were assuaged by the club’s strong finish in the Premier League this season. Newcastle qualified for the Champions League for the first time since 2010.

Don’t be surprised if Saudi Arabia eventually ends up investing in U.S. sports franchises. The Tour will be a test case of whether the American public would accept it. Our sports leagues already have dipped their toes in those waters by partnering with amoral corporations.

You’ve probably seen the commercials for Cisco boasting that it is the NFL’s official technology partner. Cisco was responsible for cybersecurity at the past two Super Bowls. It also was responsible for creating a surveillance system for the Chinese government to target religious minorities for brutal repression, according to a lawsuit filed by victims against Cisco in U.S. federal court.

That court dismissed the case because it found that the claims do not “touch or concern” the United States, and it couldn’t be inferred that Cisco knew the surveillance system would be used for evil purposes. No fuss is made about the NFL partnering with a technology company complicit in human rights abuses.

The same is true for the NFL, MLB, NBA and college sports. Nike is an official jersey provider for the pro sports leagues. It also supplies equipment and apparel for several colleges and universities, including Georgia. The company has a long history of human rights abuses at factories that manufacture its products.

In 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute named Nike as one of the dozens of companies that are “directly or indirectly benefiting” from forced labor by Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China. The ASPI report is among many to allege the Chinese government sends ethnic minorities to “re-education camps” and forces them to work in factories that are part of supply chains for Western companies, including Nike.

In response, Nike said it is committed to “ethical and responsible manufacturing” and denied that it sources products from the region of China where alleged abuses take place. But Nike backtracked after that statement led to a boycott of its products in China.

There’s no evidence that Nike’s bottom line was hurt by its capitulation to a repressive regime. There also doesn’t seem to be any negative consequences for the NFL, NBA, MLB and the college sports teams that partner with Nike. Money wins over morality, again.

We’ll see if the Tour ends up losing money because of its deal with Saudi Arabia. It can be argued that giving an ownership stake to an authoritarian government is different than accepting sponsorships from ethically deficient corporations. That’s the kind of rationalization a person or company does when they know they’re part of something wrong and don’t like the feeling.

Good luck to golf fans who are abandoning the Tour and looking for a sports league with better morals. It’s impossible to be a fan of any major sport and not feel complicit with governments and corporations that are responsible for human suffering. Well, I guess it is possible if you don’t think too much about it. That apparently includes a lot of us because we keep watching sports (and I make money writing about them).

That’s why I don’t get the extremely negative reactions to the Tour merging with LIV. It’s morally wrong to do business with governments or corporations that do harm. But look around the sports world, or the world in general, and you’ll see it’s also the status quo. The PGA Tour knows this, so get ready for the new Saudi world golf tour.

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