In 2017, one of the top chess players in the world announced she wasn’t going to play at the World Championships this year in Saudi Arabia. Anna Muzychuk cited the conditions that women would have to play in on her Facebook post, she explained she didn’t want to be accompanied by a man when she traveled outside the hotel, or wear the Kingdom’s compromise on attire for women at the event, high necked blouses and trousers. Muzychuk didn’t want to “feel myself a secondary creature.”
According to The Guardian’s story on the issue, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was believed to have paid $1.5 million to host the championships, as crown prince Mohammed bin Salmon pursues sports events and leagues.
“Exactly one year ago I won these two titles and was about to be the happiest person in the chess world but this time I feel really bad,” the Ukrainian chess player said. “I am ready to stand for my principles and skip the event, where in five days I was expected to earn more than I do in a dozen of events combined.”
A canary, that story was.
Fast forward five years and a move a few thousand miles west, and the sports world is still wrestling with how to manage the problem of Saudi money in sports. As long as you aren’t one of the people being asked to wear garments not of your choosing and have a minder assigned to you, then Saudi money buys the same watches and cars as any other kind of money, but the main difference is the volume of cash.
As PGA Tour COO Ron Price characterized it on Tuesday, “north of one billion.” But that wasn’t the reason he and a few pals at the PGA Tour made the agreement with LIV, oh no, it was to save golf, for the sake of the charities.
Earlier this week the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing on the proposed merger of LIV golf and the PGA Tour. The sports world is still dealing with the aftershocks of that proposal, given all the well-founded ethical considerations that were raised by the PGA as an organization, as well as some players.
And none of that matters. Not the murder of a Washington Post journalist who was critical of the regime, not the alleged human rights violations or even women who might feel themselves secondary creatures. Not the PGA’s status as a non-profit. Not the ability for players to speak freely about matters related to any of this, should they want. Blumenthal implored the PGA representatives not to impose a non-disparagement clause on players. Because there’s enough money in the Saudi Public Investment Fund to comfortably pay us all for our silence.
Or as Chairman Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut put it: “Today’s hearing is about much more than the game of golf. It’s about how a brutal, repressive regime can, by influence, indeed, even take over a cherished American institution to cleanse its public image. “
It’s one thing to consider sports a business, but they haven’t been treated as businesses by Congress. Baseball was given an anti-trust exemption due to its importance in the American cultural landscape. The NCAA has been able to avoid treating players like labor despite the amount of money revenue-generating sports generate. Olympians were unable to earn money through endorsements until the 1980s.
Sports have always been considered about more than just commerce in this country – there were ideals involved. These are the games we use to teach our children values, where we go to name our heroes, where we invest not only money in a ticket, but our time and loyalty.
That’s more than commerce. Or at least it was.
Because when leagues that govern golf or chess make deals to play in these places, or agree to let that money purchase teams or become a majority owner, then the rules that Saudi imposes on players and fans will force some difficult choices, such as the one Anna Muzychuk faced years ago.
The money doesn’t go to the best chess players, or golfers, or soccer players, but to the best players who will wear what they are told to, won’t mention what they are told not to, and parrot Saudi talking points so reflexively that they come to fervently believe them.
And that’s the real issue. The “north of a billion” isn’t because the Saudis are such huge golf fans, but they know the West is. That C Suite executives love to conduct business on the golf course, that the elite courses and private clubs are a symbol of something more, and that they will get the shine of associating with those players.
It’s the same with Premier League teams and World Cup events. They know the fastest way to build a constituency beyond borders is to be part of something fans deeply care about.
Ranking Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin finished his opening remarks with the kind of aside that shows why this sports squabble is so far outside the norm.
“Mister Chairman, as a quick aside,” Johnson said, “I was approached by some members of 9/11 families at the hall today and they gave me a document that summarizes, I guess, the FBI’s investigation of Saudi involvement in 9/11 and unlike so many, or like so many documents that I receive, it’s heavily redacted. The FBI, the United States government, the Saudi government is not being transparent with the 9/11 families and I want to completely support the 9/11 families in obtaining transparency and the truth.”
When a hearing by necessity delves into the possibility that the PGA Tour’s new owner was involved with the effort that led to 9/11, we have left terra firma.