Freakonomics Looks At Saudi Sportswashing And LIV

Freakonomics Looks At Saudi Sportswashing And LIV

Saudi funding of the Greg Norman fronted LIV Golf has been described by some critics as “sportswashing” — an effort by a government to distract from its bad behavior by sponsoring major sporting events.

Sportswashing is a variation of the old Roman strategy of staging gladiatorial games and races at the hippodrome to appease the turbulent masses.

Bread and Circuses, updated for the modern age.

In the latest episode of the Freakonomics podcast, Stephen Dubner and guests Professor Victor Matheson, Brandel Chamblee, Alan Shipnuck, Karen Crouse and Bomani Jone take a look at the Saudi golf league’s sportswashing efforts. They also examine past efforts by Russia, China, Azerbaijan and Nazi Germany.

The Freakonomics podcast is an outgrowth of the bestselling Freakonomics books, which look at topics such as cheating in sports, drug dealing, education and even the naming of children through an economic lens.

“Sportswashing” is a derivative of “whitewashing,” which originally referred to using white paint to cover up dark spots on walls. The White House, for example, is whitewashed to cover burn marks from the War of 1812. It wasn’t originally white. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer famously tricks his friends into helping him whitewash a fence.

In modern times, the term has more commonly meant to cover up a scandal or criminal behavior.

That’s the sense in which sportwashing is used.

Chamblee minces no words when talking about the Saudi backed LIV Golf.

CHAMBLEE: It is, at least in my view, an attempt to manipulate the market with an economy of corruption where they pay lavish sums of money to get the world to look at what they’re doing as reform, all the while Saudi Arabia is experiencing the worst period of repression in modern history.

Brandel Chamblee on the Freakonomics Radio podcast

Chamblee argues that in participating, far from declaring their independence as private contractors, the LIV players have become subservient to Saudi oil money.

The minute they take that money from LIV Golf, they are now dependent upon and subservient to M.B.S. and his thugs. They lose their image, their legacy, because their talents and fame are now being exploited by a government seeking to hide their atrocities. And to whatever extent this country, Saudi Arabia, can hide and euphemize its atrocities, you are in some way ensuring that those atrocities will continue. It’s blood money all the way. When golfers say that this is not political — they couldn’t be more wrong. Sports and politics are in a relationship. They’re having an affair, so to speak. And their illegitimate child is sportswashing. 

Brandel Chamblee on the Freakonomics Radio podcast.

Shipnuck, whose book, Phil, put him at the center of the Saudi controversy takes a slightly more nuanced approach, pointing out issues the PGA TOUR has faced that may have resulted in star player unrest, such as demanding a higher share of TOUR revenues and lack of TOUR transparency.

Still, he also calls LIV Golf “sportwashing.”

The Saudis have been engaged in sportswashing for a very long time. Formula 1, through snooker tournaments, pretty much any sport they can get their hands on. And what’s particularly attractive about golf is they don’t have to woo an entire league. It’s just one player at a time.

There’s been an outcry about it because we all know about the Saudi atrocities, and they supplied 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. And when the players go over there, there’s a very standard script they stick to, which is “I’m not a politician. I’m just a golfer.” Or, “I’m just here to try and grow the game.

Alan Shipnuck on the Freakonomics Radio podcast

Meanwhile, New York Times golf writer Karen Crouse thinks the PGA TOUR and its supporters are faking outrage at some level:

I’m not condoning the Saudi regime. There’s no defending it. But \\ any rogue tour poses an existential threat to the P.G.A. Tour, which has basically a monopoly. The cynic in me thinks that the P.G.A. Tour is making a big deal about where this money is coming from to deflect attention from the fact that this is a really interesting idea, that if it was being funded in any other way, people would be quite excited about.

Karen Crouse on the Freakonomics Radio Podcast

There’s a lot more in the Freakonomics Radio podcast on Sportswashing. Give it a listen.

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