Dave Faries herethinking of money, gambling and the tangle of lines created when the two forces come together.
As you read this, the LIV Golf Invitational Series is underway at the Centurion Club in St. Albans, England. The group of 42 golfers includes some big names – Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson – and a number of others who regularly fill the middle or bottom of the leaderboard. There is no network TV coverage, as far as I understand.
It is an inauspicious beginning, certainly, but it is also capital and disastrous. The LIV series – sometimes referred to as Super League – is backed by the Saudi government as part of an alleged “sportswashing” campaign designed to distract the world’s attention from the country’s dismal human rights record (some journalists began tagging the “Bonesaw Invitational”, a reference to the murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the kingdom). And it has the potential to divide the sport of golf into competing rounds of diluted talent.
The role of Saudi money and its brutal regime creates a bigger point of contention. And we’re talking about are breathtaking. Dustin Johnson, one of the few top players on the court, reportedly received around $125 million to bail out the PGA. Mickelson’s loot is said to be nearly $200 million.
Even more amazing, Tiger Woods turned down a nearly $1 billion offer— and he’s suffered so many injuries from a single vehicle accident in 2021 that he can barely swing a club.
Amnesty International has regularly documented the kingdom’s abuses. Share dissenting opinions and you’re thrown in jail, if you’re lucky. Flogging, amputation and other forms of torment are used for offenders. There is a deep link of discrimination against women and migrants. Even Mickelson was surprised by the brutality. In a February interview with Carmel-based golf writer and Mickelson biographer Alan Shipnuck posted on his site The Firepit Collective, the veteran golfer said, “They are some scary motherfuckers to get involved with. We know they killed Khashoggi and they have a horrible human rights record. They execute people there for being gay.
Mickelson has been isolated from the PGA Tour since February, when he chose to participate in a Saudi event that competed with the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and also encouraged others to jump. Why take such a step knowing the disposition of the kingdom?
“Because this is a unique opportunity to reshape the way the PGA Tour works,” he said to Shipnuck. Mickelson also called the organization — PGA is a nonprofit — greedy. (Note that the Pro-Am raises $10-15 million each year for local charities). In other words, Phil wants more. Lee Westwood too. Explaining his departure for the Bonesaw Invitational to reporters, the British golfer said: “It’s my job. I do this for the money. That’s not the only reason to do it. But if someone shows up and gives one of us a shot at a raise, then you have to give it some serious thought, right? »
Mickelson turned pro in 1992. In 657 starts since joining the PGA Tour, the 51-year-old has earned $95 million, not counting what he makes from endorsements – or cashed in; many of his sponsors are gone. Johnson came to the tour in 2007. His earnings totaled $74.2 million from just 307 events. Even Woods’ account is dwarfed by the sum offered by the Saudi league. He has racked up nearly $121 million over the years. They have expenses, of course, but they are quite tidy sums.
Johnson’s agent David Winkle explained DJ’s thoughts on the matter in a statement. “He’s never had a problem with the PGA Tour and is grateful for everything it’s given him, but in the end he felt it was too compelling to pass up.”
All of this leads to choices that can be complicated, with one clear caveat.
Fans of a sport often say they would take a lot less to have the opportunity to get on the field, or even play for free. And most athletes find joy in the sport they play – baseball, soccer, basketball, soccer, golf, whatever. Basically, almost every sport is a game. It’s funny. But for the pros, it’s also work. Many athletes exist on the lower rungs of the pay scale.
Former NFL star Arian Foster once admitted to a reporter that he had stopped watching football. “Of course I was a super fan growing up,” he continued. “Once you see the business side, you see it differently.”
In an article for AthleticismRobert Litan fired a “love-money spectrum.” Athletes position on this spectrum depends on the individual and it can change. 1960s baseball star Curt Flood certainly enjoyed the game. At the time, however, team owners held players in a contractual bondage known as a reserve clause. The team held rights to the player, even after his contract expired, limiting opportunities and keeping wages artificially low. Changing the structure of the game became more important for Flood. He refused to cooperate and was kicked out of professional baseball. But his sacrifice ultimately earned the right to free agency and more money for the players.
As fans, we want the love of the sport to be the main motivation. But players know they are under a prime, a period when they are at their peak. In golf, that period is much longer than, say, in football, where the weekly hammering routinely cuts careers short. But it is a presence that lurks constantly. It’s hard to fault a professional for having swung to the point on the spectrum where money, where fair wages, matter as much or more than the joy gleaned from the game. On the other hand, on the PGA Tour, with all the charities benefiting, getting more from the pool is like taking from those in need.
Like I said, the lines are tangled. And yet, there is one which is straight and obvious and which must not be crossed.
Sportwashing is nothing new. Nazi Germany used it in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Knowing, as he does in the case of Saudi Arabia, the capabilities of dictatorship, would a Mickelson, Johnson or Bryson DeChambeau from an earlier era jump into the Nazi Super League? Some might. Human rights have been repeatedly violated in sport. One only has to look at the absence of black athletes from white American teams in the first 50 plus years of the last century for proof of that.
Yet the moral line is clear. And even if Mickelson is right, that the PGA structure is stacked against the players, even if Johnson wants what’s best for his family and he believes it’s money, there’s probably has a way to achieve his goals without coming close to brutal dieting. They took a ruthless position.
Golfers who have joined the LIV series – the Bonesaw Invitational – have crossed a line. Considering everything, should they be welcome if they try to step back?
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