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The way LIV players could reduce Saudi ‘sportswashing’

Even athletes participating in sportswashing can do some good by speaking out

Golfer Phil Mickelson speaks during a news conference ahead of the LIV Golf Invitational Series event in St. Albans, England, on June 8. (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)
8 min

Professional golf is splintering before our eyes, threatening the future of the PGA Tour. Every week, LIV Golf — the upstart tour funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — lures more top players and golf media figures to its ranks. With seemingly endless money flowing from the opaque fund controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it appears that LIV is here to stay, at least for now. On Wednesday, the tour announced a 14-event schedule in 2023, including a team competition. And with each top player who jumps, the odds increase that LIV becomes a legitimate competitor to the PGA Tour.

This horrifies some in the sports world, but the revulsion is not uniform. Basketball legend Charles Barkley, who is discussing a broadcasting role with LIV, told the New York Post that it represented “selective outrage” and observed: “If you are in pro sports, you are taking some type of money from not a great cause.”

Barkley’s justification calls to mind a long history of debates over government “sportswashing” — the use of sports to cloak or distract from human rights violations and repression. In 1936, for example, some Americans opposed sending U.S. athletes, including track star Jesse Owens, to the Olympic Games hosted by Adolf Hitler in Berlin.

Yet these conversations have always been complicated. Americans today rightly celebrate Owens for his courage in winning four gold medals in Berlin, challenging Nazi racism, but they usually ignore the rest of the story: overall, the 1936 Olympics were a rousing success for the Fuhrer, arguably the most successful episode of sportswashing ever.

Athletes, however, have another option besides simply choosing to abstain or partake in sportswashing. While it is unclear whether LIV players can contractually comment on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, history indicates that athletes can seek a middle ground by participating in contested sporting events, and then using the spotlight that follows to speak out for change. In fact, Lee Elder, a trailblazing African American golfer, did precisely this in the 1970s when it came to South Africa, exposing the benefits and detriments of this course of action.

Elder was an elite PGA Tour player and easily the top African American golfer of the 1970s. After taking up the game later in his teens, he worked his way up from caddying to become one of the first 10 Black players to compete on the PGA Tour after the circuit desegregated in 1961. He won four times from 1974-1978, helped the U.S. win the 1979 Ryder Cup and integrated the Masters Tournament in 1975. Yet, despite the racism Elder confronted and his role as a trailblazer in integrating the PGA Tour, the golfer was no activist. He was quiet and withdrawn — boring, even — hardly sharing himself with the media and rarely criticizing anything publicly. Which is to say, Elder was the quintessential PGA Tour golfer.

But in 1971, Elder confronted backlash when he accepted an invitation from White South African golf star Gary Player — and South Africa’s apartheid government — to compete in the South African PGA Championship. The whole world knew this was a blatant act of sportswashing to curry favor at a time when the apartheid regime was facing an unprecedented global sports boycott. South Africa, for example, was banned from participating in the Olympics from 1964 to 1988, and White South African athletes faced ongoing threats to bar them from competing in a range of sports. Many Americans supported the anti-apartheid boycotts of South Africa and neighboring Rhodesia.

In the United States, most fans loved Player, and his peers on the PGA Tour publicly supported him, including African American players like Elder and Charlie Sifford. Yet, though he later voiced regret, in 1971 Player openly supported the apartheid regime in his home country, even going so far as to praise it rapturously in his 1966 autobiography. Many fans, recognizing that the South African government sought to draw from Player’s popularity to sanitize their regime, implored Elder not to accept the invitation. Black and White sportswriters warned he would be nothing but a pawn. Anti-apartheid organizations pleaded with him not to go. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe, himself banned from competing in South Africa, called the golf invitation “a farce.”

But Elder went. His public statement announcing the trip emphasized that he was “not a politician” and had no intention of being “involved in political controversies that are internal and local.” He spent three weeks touring Africa in November and December of 1971, including Liberia, Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya (he even won the Nigerian Open).

Predictably, his time in South Africa drew the most attention and criticism. At Johannesburg’s Huddle Park Golf Course, an estimated gallery of 10,000 people watched as he and Player were paired together in the South African PGA Championship. A small group of Black South African golfers also participated, the first allowed to compete alongside White players in that tour’s history.

Elder’s detractors were largely correct in their criticism. He participated in a sportswashing trip that mostly went off the way South Africa’s regime wanted. Much to the chagrin of the anti-apartheid movement, he established a lifelong friendship with Player and publicly opposed U.S. economic sanctions on South Africa.

However, Elder refused to be a mere pawn for the repressive government. In small but meaningful ways, he turned the visit into something else, ultimately making the trip on his own terms. For instance, he negotiated hard to have the gallery racially integrated at Huddle Park — also a first for the South African PGA. Behind the scenes, he asked to meet the imprisoned Nelson Mandela (he was denied). Perhaps most significantly, off the cuff in Johannesburg, Elder boldly told local journalists that he would refuse to return until apartheid was abolished. Such frank moments were not in the plans. “I felt like I really left something permanent there in South Africa,” he later said. By 1975, he had also raised tens of thousands of dollars to support Black golf and education programs in South Africa.

Elder’s journey is largely forgotten today, long overshadowed by more outspoken athletes and their subsequent African trips, such as Ashe’s visit to South Africa in 1973 and Muhammad Ali’s famed “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974. For those athletes, their trips helped them speak out early, often and eloquently about a range of issues, from racism and colonialism to human rights more broadly.

Elder was no Ali, Ashe or Owens. But in his own non-activist style — one that many professional golfers seem to share — he managed to find cracks in the regime’s plans, little moments and spaces where he could assert himself and send his own message. “Thanks to Elder, there are 40 Black professional South African golfers,” Jet magazine told readers in 1975. “Which is about four times as many as the U.S. can boast.”

For Elder, the trip sparked a long-term interest in South Africa and its Black citizens. He eventually visited again in 1989, on the eve of the fall of apartheid, delivering even stronger words. Although his stance may have been modest compared to more outspoken athletes, Elder’s actions stood out in the world of golf. In comparison, by the 1980s, many of the game’s most popular players were defying the international sports boycott (and U.S. State Department warnings) to play in South Africa’s annual “Million Dollar Challenge” at Gary Player Country Club in Sun City, including Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Raymond Floyd.

Obviously, golfers who have joined LIV have made a far deeper commitment than just a single appearance — they have signed lucrative contracts worth millions of dollars that are funded directly by the Saudi government and some stars, as reported on Wednesday by Front Office Sports, will get equity in their LIV teams. But Lee Elder’s story offers a model for LIV participants to take the money, and still find the courage to speak up in some small way — especially when the LIV Tour ventures to Saudi Arabia this October.

Professional sports offers an unprecedented platform, and with just a few impromptu words or a simple lapel pin, one of the LIV players could easily undermine what Saudi Arabia thinks it has paid for. That is, of course, if they choose to do so.