What Is 'Sportswashing'?

The announcement that the PGA Tour will merge with the controversial Saudi-funded LIV Golf rocked the world of professional golf on Tuesday. The shocking news came after nearly two years of acrimony between the rival organizations, punctuated by legal disputes, tensions among players and serious ethical debates.

For those unfamiliar with the controversy, LIV Golf was founded in 2021 as a challenger to the PGA Tour, which had long been the world’s preeminent professional golf organization. LIV is bankrolled by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, which is controlled by the Saudi crown prince, and the league is led by former PGA Tour star Greg Norman.

Since its founding, the upstart tour has dangled multimillion-dollar deals to lure top PGA Tour players like Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka, leading to a schism within the sport. Those who defected were suspended from all PGA Tour events, as well as those of its European counterpart, the DP World Tour.

Throughout this period of upheaval, PGA Tour officials have made strong statements condemning LIV Golf, with Commissioner Jay Monahan even invoking the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Critics have characterized the players’ massive salaries as “blood money,” calling out the Saudi regime’s history of human rights abuses and its role in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (In 2021, Mickelson reportedly acknowledged the country’s “horrible record on human rights” but described the possibility of LIV involvement as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates” ― comments for which he later apologized.)

Now, under this week’s merger (which also includes the DP World Tour), the PGA tour will accept a massive investment from the PIF, and the head of the fund, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, will become chairman of the combined organization.

Supporters of LIV and the PIF ― including former U.S. President Donald Trump ― celebrated the news. But many blindsided fans and PGA Tour players, a number of whom learned of the merger through Twitter, appear less than pleased. Assuming the agreement is finalized, vocal LIV critics like player Rory McIlroy will seemingly have no choice but to work for an organization that they vehemently opposed if they wish to continue their careers as professional golfers.

The organization 9/11 Families United issued a statement expressing the shock and offense its members feel in response to the “hypocrisy and greed” of PGA Tour leaders.

Amid the news coverage and heated responses from golf fans this week, one word keeps coming up: “sportswashing.” Many say the merger is a prime example of sportswashing and the growing danger of this phenomenon.

What is ‘sportswashing’?

“Sportswashing is the practice of using sport to launder a state’s reputation on the international stage, typically by hosting major international sports events like the Olympics or World Cup and, more recently, by investing large sums in prestigious sports clubs or organizations,” said Alan McDougall, a professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, whose research has focused on the global history of sports. 

The term is typically associated with authoritarian regimes and countries with a history of human rights violations. As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, sportswashing is used to promote a “positive public image” for a government or an organization while “distracting attention from other activities considered to be unethical, illegal, or otherwise controversial.”

Cameron Smith of Australia during the final round of the LIV Golf Invitational - Boston at the Oaks golf course at the International on Sept. 4, 2022, in Bolton, Massachusetts.

Cameron Smith of Australia during the final round of the LIV Golf Invitational - Boston at the Oaks golf course at the International on Sept. 4, 2022, in Bolton, Massachusetts.

Sportswashing could be considered a form of “soft power,” where countries use positive attraction and persuasion, rather than coercion, to achieve desired outcomes. For many people, though, the strong sense of deceit and moral wrongdoing associated with sportswashing may set it apart from that more accepted diplomatic strategy.

“The ‘washing’ part makes it a little more specific, in that the sporting events are supposed to clean up a country’s image that has been brought low by some other factor,” said Victor Matheson, an economics professor at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

How long has this been going on?

The word “sportswashing” is relatively new, first appearing on Twitter and other online spaces in the early 2010s. But the practice of using sports to convey prestige or improve a state’s world standing goes back much further.

“The hosting of the 1934 Soccer World Cup by Italy while it was under the control of the fascist Benito Mussolini can also be seen as a case of sportswashing, as can the hosting of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany and the hosting of the 1978 Soccer World Cup by Argentina whilst the country was ruled by a military dictatorship,” said Alfred Archer, an assistant professor of philosophy at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and a co-author of the paper “Sportswashing: Complicity and Corruption.”

At the start of the 20th century, the British colonial government encouraged its professional sports teams to visit South Africa at the same time that as many as 150,000 prisoners were being held in concentration camps there. 

“If you look at the way that Britain was using sport at that time, essentially to engage the local population and project an image of Britain among the local population, you could call this sportswashing,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in France.

Adolf Hitler marches into the arena with entourage at the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Adolf Hitler marches into the arena with entourage at the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Going back even further, historians have compared sportswashing to the ancient Roman concept of “bread and circuses” ― political leaders using superficial entertainment like chariot races and gladiatorial contests to divert attention from the government’s failings. 

Jules Boykoff, a professor of politics and government at Pacific University in Oregon, pointed to the ancient Olympics in Greece.

“In 416 BCE, Athens entered numerous teams into the chariot race amid an ongoing war against Sparta,” he explained. “Athens did well in the chariot race, distracting attention from the fact that Athens was being beaten in the war, affording the impression that everything was going well. Alcibiades, the Athenian politico who brought the chariot teams to compete at the Olympics, pivoted off his success, using it to argue for the subsequent invasion of their rivals in Sicily.”

How is it different today?

If the recent proliferation of the term “sportswashing” is any indication, the concept has gotten much more attention over the past decade. 

“I’m not sure that there is necessarily more sportswashing than in the past,” McDougall said. “But I would say that the scale of the ambition of sportswashing projects, especially from Gulf States like Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia ― and the amount of funding associated with them ― has markedly increased.”

He believes that the staggering sums of money involved inherently “skew the playing field, creating competitive imbalances that are impossible to overcome,” and give rise to a sporting landscape “rife for financial irregularities and even corruption.”

The level of spending from Saudi Arabia has certainly raised eyebrows.

In addition to sinking billions into professional golf, Saudi Arabia has made a number of other massive investments in the world of elite sports. In 2021, the PIF led a consortium that purchased the English Premier League team Newcastle United F.C. for more than $400 million. The Saudi Pro League is also undergoing a big transformation, drawing high-profile players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema with astronomical salary offers.

“Qatar meanwhile owns the soccer club Paris Saint-Germain, hosted last year’s Men’s Soccer World Cup, and are bidding to own Manchester United,” Archer noted. “These investments appear to be part of a strategic move to improve the international reputations of both countries by distracting away from their appalling record of human rights abuses.”

A banner criticizes the Saudi ownership of Newcastle United during a Premier League match between Newcastle and Crystal Palace on Oct. 23, 2021, in London.

A banner criticizes the Saudi ownership of Newcastle United during a Premier League match between Newcastle and Crystal Palace on Oct. 23, 2021, in London.

Looking beyond the Gulf States, Archer offered the example of Russia, which hosted the 2018 World Cup and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi ― moves that could be described as an attempt to burnish the country’s image under President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

“We might also think that the London 2012 Olympics is a plausible case of sportswashing, after the United Kingdom’s international reputation had taken a significant hit due to its involvement in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq,” Archer said.

The PGA Tour-LIV Golf news, though, could take the concept of sportswashing to a new level.

“There are plenty of soccer clubs not owned by sportswashers, and the World Cup won’t be an instance of sportswashing every cycle ― whereas this latest move by LIV takes the major golf tours and might mean that sportwashing will be ubiquitous in elite golf,” said Jake Wojtowicz, who co-authored the paper with Archer, along with the upcoming book “Why It’s OK to Be a Sports Fan.”

Saudi leaders have rejected the accusations of sportswashing. Rather than “buying legitimacy” or papering over human rights woes, they maintain that the goal of the PIF’s sporting investments is to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and empower its younger citizens.

Moreover, some argue that there’s an element of oversimplification and hypocrisy in some of the uproar.  

“A critique I have of how the term [‘sportswashing’] is used is that often it is only applied in the authoritarians context,” Boykoff said. “As such, sportswashing becomes a convenient cudgel for bashing countries in the Global South.”

He emphasized that sportswashing can emerge in ostensibly democratic political spaces as well. After all, the U.S. has its share of sociopolitical problems, from racial violence to mass incarceration to anti-LGBTQ policies.

“Many in the Gulf States argue, not without some justification, that the U.S. and the U.K. should get their own houses in order before they shout from the rooftops about murdered journalists, migrant labor rights and gender inequality,” McDougall said.

The sport of golf, in particular, has a long history of racism and sexism in the Western world, and this spirit of exclusion persists in some ways to this day. Still, it’s difficult to compare these injustices to reports of mass executions, worker deaths and punitive amputations.

Does sportswashing even work?

As critics accuse the Saudi regime and other governments of using athletics to draw attention away from their human rights records, there’s also a question of how effective “sportswashing” really is in practice. The lack of academic studies examining the phenomenon makes it hard to speak to this.

“Sportswashing works because sports are so important to people, and when we like something or someone, we are more likely to see other things they do in a positive light,” Wojtowicz argued. “It’s a little like a friend whose behavior you find charming, when it would be obnoxious if a stranger did it.”

He noted that effective sportswashers can launder their images by minimizing, normalizing or generally distracting from their moral violations through the cultural importance and romantic attachments that people associate with certain teams or events. 

“Sportswashing renders fans ― as well as players, coaches, administrators, journalists, etc. ― complicit in wrongdoing, and it corrupts the identity of the thing they love,” Wojtowicz said. “Fans obviously aren’t complicit in, say, the execution of 81 men without a fair trial. Rather, what they are complicit in is the sportswashing, because they often gladly go along with supporting both the team and the new owners, or the sport and the tournament hosts ― and if sportswashing is effective, this leaves fans complicit in the effort to continue to commit heinous acts and get away with it.”

But if the intention of sportswashing is to distract from a state’s wrongdoings, you could argue that these days it often has the opposite effect. The media frenzy and fan protests that follow many of these investments tend to bring greater awareness and press coverage of human rights abuses and other issues.

“If people continue to raise awareness of these wrongs, as happened during the 2022 Men’s Soccer World Cup in Qatar, then there is a real possibility of the sportswashing project backfiring by actually bring more attention to these wrongs,” Archer said.

With the World Cup and the Olympics, there could be other downsides as well.  

“Mega events are often a gigantic boondoggle, so in some ways we are actually punishing these countries by saddling them with a huge amount of debt and a bunch of infrastructure that will go unused after the event,” Matheson said. “So maybe it is just desserts.”

In the case of professional golf, it’s also possible that the PIF and the reality of Saudi ownership could somewhat fade into the background, such that people don’t even associate the sport (and their positive feelings about it) with the country. Any global image rehabilitation could thus be minimal at best.

But Chadwick believes it’s “dangerous and naive” to focus too much on the concept of simply using sports to cleanse a tarnished reputation, while ignoring the wider economic effects of these strategic investments.

He pointed to the Premier League team Manchester City F.C., whose ownership is linked to the government of Abu Dhabi. A 2022 report found that the city of Manchester had sold large tracts of public land to the Abu Dhabi investment fund that owns the team at discount prices.

“In essence, they’ve skewed property values in Manchester and changed the urban design, which affects homelessness, rental costs and the quality of peoples’ lives,” Chadwick said. “This is something profoundly affecting people’s lives, but all we’re doing is calling it sportswashing. We’re now using the term in common vernacular without actually thinking about what it means and how it works.”

There can be serious geopolitical implications as well. 

“If we take the example of, say, the Qatar World Cup in 2022 or Putin’s Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, sportswashing today is as much about hard power (war, contracts for military hardware, etc.) as it is about the ‘soft power’ benefits of showing your regime’s ‘progressive’ side to the world,” McDougall noted.

Russian President Vladimir Putin touches the World Cup trophy as FIFA President Gianni Infantino looks on during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Final between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin touches the World Cup trophy as FIFA President Gianni Infantino looks on during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Final between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

“When you look at U.S. media coverage of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, it is bracing how breathlessly the media covered Hitler as he hosted the Olympics, allowing him to appear important on the global stage,” Boykoff said. “We all know what happened next.”

He added that people who ask whether sportswashing “works” tend to implicitly focus on international audiences.

“But sportswashing can target a country’s internal population as much as an external, global public, and a lot of people ignore this vital fact,” Boykoff explained. “Sportswashing can rev up domestic populations, prepping them for future wars.”

What can sports fans do about it?

Although plenty of fans appear to be unbothered by their respective teams’ sportswashing takeovers, others feel deeply conflicted about moving forward with their lifelong fandom under a controversial new ownership. As Qatar and Abu Dhabi’s wealth funds reportedly explore options for investment in NBA franchises, more Americans may soon find themselves in this position.

But is the answer simply to hold one’s nose? Is it a matter of hating the organization but not the game?

“In the 21st century, supporting any major sports club involves a level of cognitive dissonance,” McDougall said. “As people queue at food banks, how can we cheer athletes earning millions of dollars a year for kicking or throwing a ball?”

He believes there are essentially two options for fans. You can accept that the world of professional sports has become “the plaything of avaricious governing bodies, unscrupulous corporations, and authoritarian governments ― and try to enjoy it anyway.” Or, you can figure out what your firm line is that can’t be crossed. As e.e. cummings wrote, “there is some shit I will not eat.”

“When that point is reached, you walk away, albeit with a heavy heart ― and support your local baseball, soccer, etc. team instead,” McDougall said. “Go back to watching grassroots sport, which is cheaper, more fun and less ethically compromised anyway!”

There might be some middle-ground options, however. 

We generally don’t support the radical conclusion that fans have no choice but to abandon their fandom,” said Kyle Fruh, an assistant professor of philosophy at Duke Kunshan University in China, and another co-author of the “Sportswashing” paper with Archer and Wojtowicz. “But by the same token, to proceed as if sportswashing needn’t concern you as a sports fan seems naïve in many cases.”

He believes the answer involves getting educated about the machinations of sportswashing and having difficult conversations with people about what’s happening. Fans can make their voices heard through protests, as many supporters of Newcastle United did with initiatives like NUFC Against Sportswashing. Again, bringing more critical attention to a regime’s moral violations can minimize the effectiveness of sportswashing and help protect the positive identity and values associated with a certain sport or team.

“So the advice, tedious as it might seem, is to keep talking about it, to push for the moral dimensions to be a part of the conversations surrounding sport, to find ways that sport can really be a force for good and insist on them, to support such efforts when they arise from fellow fans, and so on,” Fruh explained. 

Regarding LIV Golf, Archer recommended that fans vocally protest the merger and do all they can to raise awareness of the human rights abuses committed by the Saudi regime.

“In addition, golf fans might make it clear who and what they are supporting when they follow these tournaments,” he said. “They can make it clear that they love golf but hate sportswashing, or even that they support those players who opposed the initial LIV Golf Tour, such as Rory McIlroy, rather than those who were all too happy to take the money being offered.”