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Congress takes on professional golf, 'sportswashing'

The PGA Tour's pending partnership with Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf will undergo intense Congressional scrutiny this week.
Posted at 7:34 AM, Jul 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-10 07:34:56-04

Much of the sports and political world will be paying attention to Congress this week.

That's because a Tuesday hearing of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations will look at the PGA Tour, Saudi Arabia, LIV Golf and a concept known as "sportswashing."

Once rivals, PGA Tour forms partnership with LIV

The PGA Tour, the golf equivalent of the NFL or the NBA, decided to enter into a partnership with LIV Golf, a new professional golf circuit that began last year.

LIV is back backed by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, which is funded, in part, by the country's oil profits.

The league quickly recruited some of the sport's biggest stars, like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, by offering contracts reportedly worth more than $100 million.

Wesley Bryan hits off the 18th tee during the first round of the PGA Zurich Classic golf tournament.

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The PGA Tour said it has formed an agreement with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, ending a feud with its LIV Golf venture.

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Throughout the last year, the PGA tour criticized LIV golf for trying to ruin the game. Officials, as well as golfers on the PGA Tour, said that a country with such a poor human rights record should have no place in golf.

However, something surprising happened in June when the PGA tour announced it was merging with LIV Golf.

Congress gets involved

The PGA Tour has said, "Entering the framework agreement put an end to costly litigation."

PGA Tour officials will testify on Tuesday. Representatives from Saudi Arabia and the game's biggest stars will not.

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson will lead the inquiry. Blumenthal previously said, "The PGA Tour has placed a price on human rights."

What is 'sportswashing'?

David Towriss with International IDEA, a democracy watch group based in Sweden, says what U.S. lawmakers are really looking at is the concept of "sportswashing," the idea of a country or corporation using sports to improve its image.

"Saudi Arabia has become a global player in global sports," Towriss said.

Saudi Arabia has not just been involved with golf, they now own soccer clubs in Europe and have been connected to Formula One racing.

"The manner in which sports is exploited is theoretically unlimited," Towriss said.

"The more people are talking about it, the more people are intrigued about what this means," Towriss added.

What Saudi Arabia is doing isn't particularly new.

Towriss says there are reasons countries like China and Russia have hosted the Olympics.

Germany had motives in 1936 when it hosted the Olympic Games, as did central Africa when Muhammad Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle" took place in the 1970s.

Towriss says what's different now is that more people are paying attention and concerned with the consequences.

For instance, the Women's World Cup recently dropped Saudi Arabia as a top sponsor after an outcry from fans.

Amy Olson waits to tee off on the first hole during a practice round.

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The professional golfer said she spoke to other players who understood her challenges, and she made some requests regarding cuisine at the course.

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What's next

Whether or not this deal goes through is still very much to be determined.

The PGA Tour has hired top lobbyists in Washington to try to get it approved.