In the run-up to the 2016 Ryder Cup, a friend of mine sat in a meeting during which a senior official on the American side wondered aloud about the possibility a U.S. team member might take a knee during the ceremonies. It was a laughable notion, as though the official believed Colin Kaepernick were protesting slow play or high taxes — those being the only issues on which PGA Tour players are apt to take a public stand.
That reality was reinforced last week as some of the world’s best golfers competed in the Saudi International, a tournament created solely to cast Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s regime in a positive light. The players received stout appearance fees, which was only fair since they had to navigate awkward questions about war crimes in Yemen and that bone saw murder in Istanbul. The payment was more for performing in the media than on the golf course, and the well-compensated chorus remained steady of voice all week.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a pro golfer,” said world No. 1 Justin Rose.
“I’m not going to get into it,” echoed world No. 2 Brooks Koepka.
“It’s my job to play golf,” offered Dustin Johnson, the world No. 3 who went on to win the tournament.
While not wanting to get into his hosts having Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi dismembered and dissolved in a vat of acid, Koepka did publicly call out Bryson DeChambeau for taking too long to hit the ball. But then DeChambeau wasn’t paying his appearance fee.
DeChambeau himself took a moment to doff his cap. “They’re showing us, ‘Hey, we’re a place just as beautiful as the rest of the world’, so I think it’s amazing what Saudi Arabia and the European Tour are doing,” he said, suggesting that his fee included a BS bonus.
It was hardly a revelation that professional golfers are willing to be public-relations stooges for dictators and anti-democratic regimes if the price is right. After all, the game’s biggest stars flocked to South Africa during the apartheid era despite an international sporting boycott. Today’s stars can claim to be merely following the lead of the European Tour, which doesn’t apply a litmus test for democracy and human rights in setting a schedule that also includes Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Oman, Qatar and Turkey.
European Tour CEO Keith Pelley defended the Saudi event, saying it was “transformational.” But then a bone saw and a vat of acid can be pretty transformational too. In the absence of standards at the tour, players are left to make their own choices.
Conscientious objecting is a fraught business, of course. Is a golfer who can’t countenance competing in Saudi Arabia because of human rights abuses then obliged to skip the PGA Tour stop in China? How current or egregious or well-publicized must violations be to warrant a boycott? And what about events staged in countries that arm evil regimes? It’s a fine, blurred line between conscience and compromise.
Yet sometimes a decision is deceptively simple. Like when a golf tournament is manufactured purely as a public-relations fig leaf for an abhorrent government. Last week’s Saudi International was just such a situation, no matter how much ‘Whataboutery’ was trafficked by slavish lickspittles in their attempt to justify enjoying Saudi hospitality.
Paul Casey saw the ethical morass. “There are a lot of places in the world that I have played and continue to go which you could question… some human rights violations that governments have committed,” he said. “I thought I’d sit this one out.” Casey is a UNICEF ambassador. He cared. Plenty of his peers didn’t. They’re just taking care of business, and their business isn’t the brutality or atrocities of their hosts.
And that’s the most dispiriting aspect of the Saudi fiasco.
Almost every other sport has produced a seminal figure who used their platform to advance a cause of inclusion, to stand up for something greater than themselves, to make a statement when statements desperately needed to be made. Jackie Robinson. Muhammad Ali. Arthur Ashe. Billie Jean King. LeBron James. No golfers though. Protest movements don’t pay appearance fees.
Plenty of those who pitched up to play in Saudi Arabia are engaged in admirable endeavors off the golf course. But that demands only charity, not courage. We’ll have to keep waiting for that golfer with a conscience, whose vision extends beyond his wallet. Gwk