Victor MATHESON: Hi, this is Victor Matheson. I’m a professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross.
Stephen DUBNER: When I say the word “sportswashing,” you say what?
MATHESON: So that’s a pretty new term. Basically, it means using some sort of sporting event to try to cover over any problems a country has had in the past.
DUBNER: And how is that different from any sort of reputation laundering? Let’s say I’m Andrew Carnegie, and I know a lot of people think I’ve been a brutal capitalist. So, I decide to open libraries in many places around the country. Or Leland Stanford, the robber baron, I decide to open what would become one of the most esteemed universities in the world. Is this any different?
MATHESON: Really, it’s not much different. The idea of using politics to curry favor is centuries old. I actually think all the way back to ancient Rome. And I think to this famous poet, Juvenal. And he coins the term “bread and circuses.” And the term “bread and circuses” refers to this: If a government can at least provide enough food to make the citizens survive — that’s the bread part — and enough circuses — things like gladiatorial contests and chariot racing — if they can provide those, they can distract the populace from any other failings of the government.
DUBNER: Getting back to today, what are some good, pure examples of sportswashing?
MATHESON: We’ve had countries like Russia very active in mega events like the World Cup and the Olympics. Same thing with China, hosting now two Olympics in the last couple decades. Or the Middle East, getting into big sporting events recently.
DUBNER: Now, Victor, your listing of the nations that have engaged in what we’re calling sportswashing — Russia, China, the Gulf states — there’s an assumption in labeling this as sportswashing that these countries are bad countries and that they are dirty and have a reputation to wash. But they probably think the same thing about us. So how is that fair?
MATHESON: Mind you, I’m coming from an American standpoint. But the fact that these are countries without functioning democracies, where you have no freedom of the press, or at least limited freedom of the press. By any sort of democracy or openness index, all of these countries rank very, very low to the bottom. And so they’re trying to rehabilitate some sort of worldwide image. “Just because Putin is going to be president for life, we’re not so bad — look how much fun you had during the Winter Olympics in Sochi.”
DUBNER: Now, if I think about sportswashing, it falls into the category of what I think a lot of political scientists call soft power. You’re not rolling tanks up to someone’s border. You’re sending sprinters or pole vaulters or football players. Why does sport have so much impact?
MATHESON: This is an unanswered question. And one of the things that sports economists just find so fascinating is how interested people are in sports, despite the fact that it’s actually not a very big business. All of spectator sports globally put together, is roughly the same size as Johnson and Johnson Corporation. The biggest sports league in the world, the N.F.L., has annual revenues less than Sherwin-Williams paint stores. But there’s not an entire section of the newspaper dedicated to paint stores or pharmaceutical products. My favorite example of soft power is actually Thailand. Thailand, by some measures of U.S. opinion, is the third most-favorably-looked-on country in all of Asia, behind Japan and South Korea, which, of course, are these big, long-standing democracies. Thailand’s none of that. They are a fairly oppressive society, they do not have any sort of free and fair elections, they have military coups on a regular basis. So why in the world is this country so popular in the United States?
DUBNER: I don’t know. Do they have a really good soccer team or pop stars or movies or something?
MATHESON: No. They have an extremely successful soft power, run by the government, of putting Thai restaurants on every corner of every city in the country.
DUBNER: No — you’re kidding me!
MATHESON: I am not making that up. This is an actual national goal, to send out Thai cooks all over the globe. And they’ve taken over the United States, from a place where, 30 years ago, there were almost no Thai restaurants, to, at this point, we have 5,000 Thai restaurants. And why do we love Thailand? It’s not because of their somewhat oppressive government — it’s because of pad Thai.
This Thai initiative that Victor Matheson is telling us about falls under what’s been called “gastrodiplomacy.” That may be an effective type of soft power — but let’s be honest, it’s hard to compete with the thrill of sport.
ANNOUNCER: Back in they go — free header! And Russia score the opening goal of the World Cup. A better start, the host nation couldn’t have wished for.
ANNOUNCER: And this time around, it’s Max Verstappen that wins out, he takes victory in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
ANNOUNCER: Berlin’s great day dawns with the arrival of the Olympic flame. Flag-draped, cheering streets greet Chancellor Hitler on his way to perform the opening ceremony.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: why are sports so useful in trying to burnish a reputation?
Bomani JONES: They need to believe that sports are pure meritocracy because, honestly, they don’t believe there’s a meritocracy anywhere else.
We focus on the latest case of sportswashing, in the usually boring precinct of professional golf.
Alan SHIPNUCK: Even though they’re in the middle of a desert and there’s almost no golf courses in the country — they want to get into the business of professional golf.
Although it does go beyond golf.
Karen CROUSE: Do we need to hold our politicians as accountable? Do our politicians have blood on their hands?
And we try to figure out if sportswashing actually works. All that, coming up.
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According to Fred Shapiro, editor of The New Yale Book of Quotations, the term “whitewashing” — a deliberate attempt to cover up some dark matter — this dates back to at least 1703. “Greenwashing” — that’s when you try to appear more environmentally friendly than you are — this goes back to at least 1989. And Shapiro says the first use of “sportswashing” was likely in 2015; it described Azerbaijan’s hosting of the European Games despite a troublesome human-rights record.
Brandel CHAMBLEE: Sports and politics are in a relationship. They’re having an affair, so to speak. And their illegitimate child is sportswashing.
That’s Brandel Chamblee.
CHAMBLEE: I’m an analyst for Golf Channel on N.B.C.
Before that, Chamblee was a professional golfer.
CHAMBLEE: Look, I was by no means a superstar. I wouldn’t even say I was a star on the P.G.A. Tour.
He did earn more than $4 million over a 15-year career.
CHAMBLEE: I won one time on the P.G.A. Tour, lost a few playoffs. But I loved every minute of it.
DUBNER: And how’s your game these days?
CHAMBLEE: It’s not bad. I mean, I’m pretty good for a commentator.
DUBNER: Let’s get to the topic that we really want to get to here, which is a brand-new golf tour called LIV Golf. Why don’t you just take it from the beginning.
CHAMBLEE: They market themselves as a rival tour to the P.G.A. Tour, and they are trying to recruit, with massive sums of money, superstar players to compete with the P.G.A. Tour.
DUBNER: For people who don’t know or care about golf, describe the P.G.A. Tour. It’s not a league, like the N.F.L., with teams and owners. It’s essentially a series of tournaments, held in a different place every week. So who is the P.G.A. Tour, exactly, and what’s the relationship of the average golfer with the Tour?
CHAMBLEE: Well, to state the obvious, it’s the major professional golf men’s tour. It’s a member-driven, philanthropic, nonprofit organization. The money that is brought into the P.G.A. Tour goes to three different places. It goes to the players, through purses and pension funds. It goes to charities. And it goes to run the future tournaments through administrative costs.
The P.G.A. Tour offers no salaries and no guaranteed payouts — but if you play well, you can make a lot of money. The top three career earners in P.G.A. Tour history are Tiger Woods, with $121 million; Phil Mickelson, with $95 million; and Dustin Johnson, with $74 million. For every dollar earned on the course, a top golfer might earn two, three, even ten times that amount in corporate sponsorships. So, the best golfers from around the world flock to the U.S.-based P.G.A. Tour to partake in its riches. It operates pretty much as a monopoly, and there have been attempts over the years to break this monopoly. The most recent one comes from an outfit called L.I.V., or LIV Golf — “L.I.V.” being the Roman numerals for 54, which is the score a golfer would shoot if he or she birdied every hole. This has never happened in the history of competitive golf, so the name is plainly aspirational. But that’s not why Brandel Chamblee and many others in the golf world hate the LIV Golf tour. They hate LIV Golf because of who’s bankrolling it.
CHAMBLEE: LIV Golf is a Saudi-backed attempt to get the world to not pay attention to their atrocious record on human rights.
CHAMBLEE: It is, at least in my view, an attempt to manipulate the market with an economy of corruption, where they pay lavish sums of money to get the world to look at what they’re doing as reform, all the while Saudi Arabia is experiencing the worst period of repression in modern history.
Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian regime, where women are treated as second-class citizens and dissidents are harshly punished. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or M.B.S., has made noises about reforming; he says he wants to make Saudi Arabia “a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” But he has been linked to a long string of abuses, most prominently the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based Saudi journalist who had been critical of M.B.S.
CHAMBLEE: The fact is the reform that he’s promising is just a facade.
So how are you supposed to put a positive spin on that?
Alan SHIPNUCK: The Saudis have been engaged in sportswashing for a very long time.
And that is Alan Shipnuck, a longtime golf journalist.
SHIPNUCK: Formula 1, snooker tournaments, pretty much any sport they can get their hands on. And what’s particularly attractive about golf is they don’t have to woo an entire league. It’s just one player at a time.
The Saudi golf initiative has been going on for some time.
SHIPNUCK: Saudi Arabia has decided that even though they’re in the middle of a desert and there’s almost no golf courses in the country — and a tiny, tiny percentage of the population has ever touched a golf club — they want to get into the business of professional golf. So as part of dipping its toe into the waters of professional golf, the Saudi Golf Federation joined forces with the European P.G.A. Tour and created this new event called the Saudi International four years ago.
The American P.G.A. Tour does not allow tournaments to pay appearance fees to golfers.
SHIPNUCK: Because then it would create this arms race, where half the tournaments couldn’t compete.
So, golfers on the P.G.A. Tour can only earn tournament money by playing well, not by appearance fees.
SHIPNUCK: But on the European tour, they’re allowed. So, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, a lot of top stars have been getting paid seven-figure appearance fees to go over and play in this new tournament in Saudi Arabia.
ANNOUNCER: D.J. does it again. Dustin Johnson has won his second Saudi International. He is king of the course.
SHIPNUCK: There’s been an outcry about it because we all know about the Saudi atrocities, and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, and they supplied 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers. And when the players go over there, there’s a very standard script they stick to, which is, “I’m not a politician. I’m just a golfer.” Or, “I’m just here to try and grow the game.”
But that was just one tournament per year in Saudi Arabia. LIV Golf, in its first season, has eight tournaments scheduled, with the promise of more each year. The first event this year will be played near London, the next four in the U.S. — right under the nose of the P.G.A. Tour — and then one in Thailand, one in Saudi Arabia, and the finale at Trump National Doral Miami. That is one of two Trump courses that LIV Golf will visit this season.
SHIPNUCK: Trump is not unlike the Saudis. He’s trying to buy his way into the golf world. He’s always been an outcast. The reason he’s built all of these private clubs is that he couldn’t get into any of the great East Coast citadels. He couldn’t get into Pine Valley or Augusta.
This new Saudi tour promises to “supercharge the game of golf.”
SHIPNUCK: And the money’s much bigger because, let’s face it, nobody can compete with Saudi money. Their first event in London, that purse is $20 million, and the P.G.A. Tour event that’s happening at the same time is $7 million.
DUBNER: It’s also a much smaller field, yes? How many players will be playing in a Saudi event?
SHIPNUCK: Yeah, 48.
DUBNER: Versus like 144, right?
SHIPNUCK: Exactly. And there’s no cut. So, when you get on the plane, you know you’re going to make at least, say, $250,000 just for showing up.
From the perspective of a professional golfer, these are some huge differences between the Saudi tour and the P.G.A. Tour.
SHIPNUCK: Professional golf is the ultimate meritocracy. There are no guaranteed contracts. The players are independent contractors. They pick their schedule, and they have to pay their own way — their private jet and/or Southwest Airlines, your hotel, all of it. And tournaments are four rounds. You play the first two, and they make a cut for basically the low 70 scores. If you miss the cut, you get zero dollars and zero cents, and you’re losing a lot of money that week. How much you’re paid is strictly a reflection of where you finish on the leaderboard. You can play your way into job security, but for those on the margins, it’s extremely stressful.
And there are a lot more players on the margins — or, if you want a better visual, on the bottom of the pyramid — than there are near the top.
SHIPNUCK: There’s about 200 players who have some playing status on the P.G.A. Tour — that’s the big leagues. Of those 200 players, maybe 30 to 50 of them have some job security. And the other 150 are just trying to hang on.
And that’s not counting the thousands of professional golfers outside the top 200, trying to work their way up. Those golfers would of course find the guaranteed Saudi money very attractive. But would the Saudis find them attractive? Not likely. They want big names — and they’ve pitched all the big names, with one simple, compelling argument against the P.G.A. Tour.
SHIPNUCK: Too much money is getting siphoned off that should be going to the players. That’s a constant critique from the players about the Tour.
DUBNER: What share of revenues from the P.G.A. Tour are going to the players? And how does that compare to, let’s say, the N.B.A. or the N.F.L.?
SHIPNUCK: That’s one of Phil Mickelson’s arguments that he’s been making for a very long time. The players have always felt like they needed a higher percentage.
DUBNER: In the N.F.L., or any of those leagues, all you have to do is look at the collective bargaining agreement, and you can see, “This share of overall dollars will be spent on player salaries.” In the N.F.L., I think it’s around 48 percent Do you have any sense of what that percent would be for the P.G.A. Tour revenues?
SHIPNUCK: I do not, and I’m not sure anybody does. The Tour — they don’t like to open their books. That’s another longtime complaint amongst the players, is a lack of transparency. The P.G.A. Tour is theoretically run by the players. They have an advisory council. They have a board of directors. But there is a commissioner who is the ultimate shot-caller.
DUBNER: So, it sounds like what the best professional golfers in the world need is some rival to come along and offer better terms to the players that would either exert some leverage on the P.G.A. Tour or could take over as the dominant tour in a way that would benefit the players more. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, theoretically, if some rival league that was based perhaps on the other side of the globe could do something like that?
SHIPNUCK: Yes, indeed. And this is an old idea, because in the 1990s, Greg Norman tried to form a world tour that would be a rival to the P.G.A. Tour.
DUBNER: So, Alan, we are speaking right now in May, but by the time this piece airs, we’ll be approaching the first LIV Golf tournament in June, near London. How successful would you say they’ve been in persuading some of the world’s best players to join them?
SHIPNUCK: So far, the L.I.V. Tour has not had the success they hoped as far as attracting big names.
DUBNER: And is that Alan Shipnuck’s fault, essentially?
SHIPNUCK: I may have played a role, yes.
We’ll get to Shipnuck’s role soon enough. But first, there are a couple things to understand here. Even though the P.G.A. Tour is not a league, like the N.F.L., and even though the golfers are independent contractors, this does not mean the P.G.A. Tour will give its golfers their blessing to go play in the new Saudi league. In fact, they’ve made clear they won’t give their blessing, and they may fine or suspend, even ban golfers who participate. Is that legal, considering the golfers are independent contractors and not employees? That is hard to say; and we shouldn’t be surprised if this question ends up getting settled in court. The level of tension — and enmity — is quite high at the moment. As evidence, we couldn’t get anyone from either the P.G.A. Tour or LIV Golf to go on the record with us. It also looks like none of the P.G.A. Tour’s major U.S. media partners, like N.B.C. or C.B.S. or the Golf Channel will risk their relationship by broadcasting the LIV tournaments. Still, those tournaments are about to happen — the first one, as we said, near London. Here’s Brandel Chamblee again:
CHAMBLEE: Well, it seems like Lee Westwood’s going to be there. Sergio Garcia. Martin Kaymer. Ian Poulter. Pretty sure Phil Mickelson will be there.
Other than Mickelson, the golfers Chamblee named are older European players — great golfers, major-championship winners, but also well on the downside of their earnings arc.
CHAMBLEE: But that’s about it. Tiger Woods has said no. Rory McIlroy has said no. Jon Rahm has said no. Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa — they have all said no.
But since we spoke with Chamblee, one very prominent U.S. golfer did say yes: Dustin Johnson. Remember him?
ANNOUNCER: Dustin Johnson has won his second Saudi International.
Dustin Johnson was until recently the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world. He won the Masters in 2020, the U.S. Open in 2016, and he has many more wins on the P.G.A. Tour. So, he’s not remotely a has-been. And yet, he just resigned from the P.G.A. Tour and joined the Saudi league; he also lost at least one of his corporate sponsors — R.B.C., the Royal Bank of Canada — which happens to be the title sponsor of the P.G.A. tournament Johnson is skipping in order to play the first LIV Golf event. Why is it worth Johnson’s while to surrender all that? Well, it has been reported that Dustin Johnson will receive $150 million for headlining the LIV Golf series — that’s double his career earnings to date. Phil Mickelson, meanwhile — the second most-famous golfer in the world, after Tiger Woods — he has reportedly signed a contract with LIV Golf for $200 million. Mickelson, by the way, is the reason this whole story turned from a golf-world controversy into a global referendum on sportswashing.
SHIPNUCK: He was quite candid about his feelings towards the Saudis. He called them “scary motherfuckers.”
Coming up: Phil Mickelson, Alan Shipnuck, and the interview that went ‘round the world. Also: the super-slippery slope of moral outrage — and whether sportswashing can trigger the Streisand Effect:
MATHESON: So, I feel a little weird as an economist talking about Barbra Streisand.
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Just over a year ago, Phil Mickelson set a golfing record that may never be broken. At 50, he became the oldest golfer to ever win one of the four major championships — in this case, the P.G.A. Championship. It was his sixth major victory in a long and phenomenally successful career. Mickelson has always been incredibly popular with golf fans — most of them, at least — but this victory was something special.
ANNOUNCER: Here it is — the biggest moment of a legendary career. Phil defeats Father Time.
At this year’s P.G.A. Championship, Mickelson was expected to defend his title and continue to bask in the glory. But he didn’t even show up. Why not? Had the P.G.A. Tour banned or suspended him? Not clear. He wasn’t injured. He didn’t have an urgent family matter. He had issued a statement a couple months earlier, saying he needed “some time away to … work on being the man I want to be.” What he really needed, apparently, was a break from public scrutiny. Pretty much the entire golfing world had turned against him because of something he had said in an interview with Alan Shipnuck.
SHIPNUCK: I started working on this biography almost two years ago now.
The biography Shipnuck was writing has just been published; it’s called Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar.
SHIPNUCK: I approached Phil face-to-face three times, asked him to sit for interviews, and he ultimately said no, which is his prerogative. I didn’t really need him.
Shipnuck had been covering Mickelson closely for a couple decades.
SHIPNUCK: I thought it would benefit him to tell his side of every story, and it would have been fun. But that wasn’t his decision, and that was fine. So I just kept working on the book. All this Saudi stuff was churning in the background.
“This Saudi stuff” meaning the rival golf league, now called LIV Golf, which is backed by Saudi Arabia’s massive Public Investment Fund.
SHIPNUCK: Everyone knew Phil was involved — not sure exactly the level. No one knew what his ultimate goals were, but he was clearly a player in all of this.
Mickelson being “a player” in a rival league didn’t surprise anyone. Even though he’d earned $95 million on the P.G.A. Tour, and much more in endorsements, he had openly criticized the Tour as greedy in how it distributes funds. Plus, Mickelson had turned 50 years old, well past the earning prime of any athlete, even a golfer. But also: He loves to gamble and is apparently not as good at that as he is at golf. In his Mickelson biography, Alan Shipnuck writes about a forensic accounting of Mickelson’s finances that was related to an insider-trading case.
SHIPNUCK: In the four years that was scrutinized, 2010 to ’14, Phil claimed $40 million in gambling losses.
When you add all this up, you can see why Phil Mickelson might have been interested in a startup golf tour funded by an uber-wealthy petrostate.
SHIPNUCK: So now out of the blue, Phil texts me and asks if we can speak. And of course, I’m thrilled because I’m putting the finishing touches on my book. I’ve been trying to get this guy for a year. He calls me up, and he just opens a vein about his grievances with the P.G.A. Tour, all the battles he’s fighting, trying to win concessions for himself and the other players. We segue into the Saudis, and this is where it got interesting because he was incredibly blunt. He basically said, “I’m not even sure I want this league to succeed, but it’s a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to reshape the business of professional golf. And I have to take it.” And he was quite candid about his feelings towards the Saudis. He called them “scary motherfuckers.” And he admitted that it’s just sportswashing, and that we know they killed Jamal Khashoggi, and we know they execute people for being gay over there, but nevertheless, it’s just too good an opportunity to pass up.
DUBNER: And was it on tape?
SHIPNUCK: Our conversation? No, I was just taking notes on my computer as we spoke.
DUBNER: What were you feeling as he’s talking?
SHIPNUCK: On one hand, I was deeply impressed by his candor. And it was so refreshing because he was straying from the script about, “We’re over there to grow the game,” which we all know is total B.S. Again, athletes have been in bed with the Saudis for a long time. That wasn’t news. But there was a couple of things I think that made this so explosive. One was how callous Phil was in just disregarding the Saudi atrocities. There was also the sneakiness that he was actually helping this rival league get started in a way that could harm his home circuit and all the players who rely on that.
DUBNER: When you say “sneakiness,” I just want to clarify, did he and other golfers that he enlisted actually hire the lawyers to write up the documents that became the league charter?
SHIPNUCK: Yeah, that’s what Phil told me. So there was that. And really, he said the quiet parts out loud — that’s what was so stunning. Because as discussed, there’s certain code words that these players use when they go over to Saudi Arabia. But no one actually just tells it like it is.
You might think Phil Mickelson would have gotten a little bit of credit for being so candid, for “saying the quiet parts out loud,” as Shipnuck puts it. But he didn’t. The moment Shipnuck published these comments, Mickelson was vilified by most of the golf world. That includes Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee.
CHAMBLEE: He spoke with seeming amusement about the atrocities. And acted as if he was only interested in the atrocities to the extent that they provided him with leverage so that he could get everything he needed with the P.G.A. Tour. When you take all that in, in its totality, it was reprehensible.
The way Chamblee sees it, no amount of money can paper over the decision that Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and the other golfers are making.
CHAMBLEE: The minute they take that money from LIV Golf, they are now dependent upon and subservient to M.B.S. and his thugs. They lose their image, their legacy, because their talents and fame are now being exploited by a government seeking to hide their atrocities. And to whatever extent this country, Saudi Arabia, can hide and euphemize its atrocities, you are in some way ensuring that those atrocities will continue. It’s blood money all the way. When golfers say that this is not political — they couldn’t be more wrong.
DUBNER: You’re saying Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman, Lee Westwood, whoever plays in these events — they’re on the wrong side of history?
CHAMBLEE: They’re on the wrong side of history. The money’s coming from the wrong place.
Are they on the wrong side of history? Is it truly blood money? Before you give an answer, here’s something to consider: the Saudi investment fund backing this new golf tour is the very same fund that invested billions of dollars in Uber before it went public. It’s the same fund that has since bought huge batches of stock in Boeing, Facebook, Disney, Starbucks, and more. Do you and I have blood on our hands when we take an Uber or buy a coffee?
CROUSE: It’s worth a really deep conversation. But people aren’t trying to find the nuances.
That is Karen Crouse, who covered golf for years at The New York Times.
CROUSE: I’m not condoning the Saudi regime. There’s no defending it. But any rogue tour poses an existential threat to the P.G.A. Tour, which has basically a monopoly. The cynic in me thinks that the P.G.A. Tour is making a big deal about where this money is coming from to deflect attention from the fact that this is a really interesting idea, that if it was being funded in any other way, people would be quite excited. It’s smaller fields. No cut, so you can go to a tournament and don’t have to worry about your favorite player not being around on the final day. This kind of creativity poses an existential threat to this very staid tour, which still debates uncollared polo shirts as being sort of renegade.
DUBNER: Were you surprised at how thoroughly Mickelson was vilified?
CROUSE: Yes. And the fact that none of us have an understanding of why Phil has not played since those comments were made public, the fact that we don’t know — was he suspended by the P.G.A. Tour, is this his decision — tells you everything you need to know about how the P.G.A. Tour operates. It is notoriously private. It’s a not-for-profit organization where the C.E.O. makes more than $4 million a year. It really hangs its hat on its charity, but people in the world of charity say the percentage of money that the P.G.A. Tour directly gives to charity is low — 16 percent, where I think 65 percent is the benchmark.
DUBNER: But what’s making people speak out in this case is the source of the money for this rival league, the Saudi Public Investment Fund — even though that fund has invested in a lot of American assets. So why do you think this is the case that’s caught fire?
CROUSE: Because it poses a threat to the status quo. The P.G.A. Tour is the gold standard. I might also add, the Ladies European Tour has five Saudi-sponsored events. It’s a struggling tour. The P.G.A. Tour is not struggling. So is that our moral calculus? If you’re a sports league, but you’re struggling, it’s okay to take the money? Again, it’s a complicated issue. Does that mean we can’t fly a Boeing airplane or get an Uber car at the airport? Or do we need to hold our politicians as accountable? Do our politicians have blood on their hands?
Crouse’s point is well-taken. The U.S. government has a long and complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia, built primarily around our reliance on their oil. When Joe Biden was running for president in 2020, he promised to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” for its assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. But now, Biden has announced he will be visiting Saudi Arabia to rebuild relations. What this really means is he will likely ask Saudi Arabia to export more oil in order to lower gas prices in the U.S. and to further isolate Russia. To Karen Crouse, the Saudi golf league is by comparison a very minor matter.
CROUSE: It’s interesting that we are dissecting this in a way that we don’t dissect matters far more important, like what is happening in Yemen right now. So can we please give the same oxygen that we’re giving this topic to some other areas in which there is Saudi money floating around? It’s so easy to make this a black-and-white issue, as people have. “The Crown Prince and the Saudis are bad. Golf is good.” But the world is so much more complicated than that. Newcastle United, a Premier League team, 80 percent of it is controlled by the exact same group that is behind this new league.
Newcastle is far from the only prominent soccer club to have politically complicated ownership.
MATHESON: The big ones that have been of interest here recently, of course, is Chelsea.
That, again, is the sports economist Victor Matheson.
MATHESON: Chelsea is owned by Roman Abramovich, or at least was until just the last few months. A prominent Russian oligarch, close ties to Putin.
Abramovich was forced to divest the Chelsea Football Club in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
MATHESON: We also have Man City that’s owned by one of the Emirates.
Man City as in Manchester City — like Chelsea, another very successful team in England’s Premier League.
MATHESON: And Paris Saint-Germain, the biggest team in France, owned by Qatar, their big sovereign wealth fund.
Qatar is also the host of soccer’s upcoming World Cup. Ever wonder how that happened?
MATHESON: So there’s a million reasons. And of course, the million reasons are the millions of dollars of bribe money that ended up in the FIFA pockets.
FIFA being the perennially corrupt ruling body of international soccer.
MATHESON: We know that there was bribery involved because many of the people involved with the bribery ended up indicted and in jail.
DUBNER: Let’s say that there are some legitimate, state-building reasons for a place like Qatar to hold an event like the World Cup. Let’s just assume that there’s no sportswashing at all going on. How do we feel about the World Cup being held in Qatar with the underlying fact that the event was actually obtained through corruption?
MATHESON: Qatar is a country that is the size of Connecticut, but with about a tenth the amount of infrastructure. Think how crazy that would be. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to host the World Cup in the United States, but it’s going to all be in Connecticut.” When the United States hosted games back in 1994, they were spread out from L.A. over to New York down to Orlando. So, all over the country. But there’s really no place to spread out games in Qatar.
DUBNER: So, the World Cup is always played in the summer. In Qatar, the summer is too hot to play outdoor football or soccer, and therefore, the Qatar World Cup had to be moved to December, correct?
MATHESON: Right. Let me also point out that the reason that they have the World Cup in the summer is not the nice weather. It’s not because people want to travel. It’s because all of these players have real jobs during the rest of the year playing for their clubs. The English Premier League, the Bundesliga in Germany — all the top players are playing for these leagues, and they’re actually playing games during November, December.
DUBNER: So, all these leagues have now been asked, or I guess required really, to adjust their schedules to accommodate a winter World Cup in Qatar. Is that the case?
MATHESON: That’s exactly right. It’d be like having a World Cup of American football that’s going to be held in Paraguay and telling the N.F.L., “Oh, cancel all of your games in December and November so that we can have this event down there.”
DUBNER: So, if I’m on the FIFA selection committee and I’m listening to Victor Matheson, I’m saying, “Qatar is not the best candidate, plainly.”
MATHESON: It’s not that Qatar is not the best candidate. Qatar’s not even a practical candidate in any way. I mean, Qatar is not even the 420th best candidate out there.
DUBNER: So, the message I’m hearing from you is that sportswashing may not necessarily be very effective — sometimes a little bit, sometimes not. But bribery is fantastic. That’s my takeaway.
MATHESON: Again, I’ve been telling you that sportswashing has been going on for centuries. Guess what? Bribery has as well.
But here’s the thing about sports: It’s supposed to be fun! It’s entertainment. This produces a strange pattern. When there is a World Cup or an Olympics held in a place like Russia or China, most of the U.S. media coverage ahead of the event is somber, with a lot of handwringing.
Judy WOODRUFF: The Olympic Winter Games are being held again in an authoritarian state, raising questions for human-rights groups.
But once the games begin …
ANNOUNCER: Nice slow rotation. Give it to him. Su Yiming, 17 years old, representing China. And he is your Olympic gold medalist out here today. Ho ho ho.
Bomani JONES: Once they start going, television executives made the conclusion that the audience doesn’t want to hear about that other stuff.
JONES: It’s real easy for them to forget about any of the larger stuff because now they have games to talk about.
DUBNER: What do you say to the sports fan who is like, “I just want to watch the game. I don’t want to make sports political. It’s like sports is the one place I have that’s not political.”
JONES: Well, I mean, for one, that fan is usually a white male. Because sports can be apolitical to you as a member of the majority group. We start with that part. The issue for me is there are all these other hours of the day when that game isn’t on, and those people still don’t want to talk about the stuff that matters. And sports gives the impression that it is always on the right side of the moral imperative. It allows viewers also to ascribe their perceived goodness of sports onto themselves, and then when you say that the sports themselves are a little bit rotten, I think it can get to people’s self-concept, and then they don’t really want to get to it. They need to believe that all of these things in sports are pure meritocracy because, honestly, they don’t believe there’s a meritocracy that exists anywhere else.
DUBNER: The L.A. Times recently published an op-ed saying that this might be the year that sportswashing backfires. The idea is that, between the World Cup in Qatar and the recent Olympics in Beijing, that the downside just becomes too obvious to too many people. Do you think that’s actually going to be the case?
JONES: No, because especially with those major events, there’s so much corruption in getting those events in the first place. Who’s going to be the people most likely to engage in that level of corruption? The answer is, people with stuff to cover up. Now, will it be effective? I don’t know, but a lot of people are still going to get paid off of building those stadiums that’ll never get used. So the incentive is still going to be there for them to do it. But again, I don’t know who’s looking at China any differently now than they did six months ago, and there’s been an Olympics in between. I don’t think there’s a single person in the United States who, between the 2008 Olympics and the 2022 Olympics, has changed their opinion of China based on what they’ve seen on television.
As we’ve been talking about sportswashing today, we have focused on how outsiders look at the place that’s holding the sporting events. We are assuming that the main goal is external propaganda. But let’s not forget the bread-and-circuses goal as well, making your own citizenry happy, and proud. Victor Matheson again:
MATHESON: It’s just like advertising. You can target different groups, and in the case of Rome, the emperors there were trying to target their own citizens so that their citizens don’t rise up against them. I think that’s actually a little bit more what’s happening in Russia than trying to influence the rest of the world. I think with the Middle East, though, they’re definitely trying to tell the world, “Hey, we’re open for business and we’re not such a bad place. Remember how much fun we had at the World Cup?”
DUBNER: Here’s a piece that recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal. “When the invasion of Ukraine began, the era of Russian sportswashing abruptly ended, at least for the foreseeable future.” You agree with that?
MATHESON: I quite honestly don’t believe that because I think it ended a month after they hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi. This was an extremely expensive event that they put on — $51 billion, the most expensive Olympics ever done. And rather than basking in the glow of soft power, of showing, “Hey, what a great place Russia is” — after the closing ceremonies, they invaded Ukraine for the first time. I think sportswashing at best works at the margins. It’s not going to erase tanks rolling across the border.
DUBNER: Talk to me for a moment about the 1936 Olympics, which Hitler meant to be a showcase for Aryan dominance and for his ideology. What happened there?
MATHESON: It’s not that Germany was trying to say, “Hey, this Nazism, it’s not that bad.” What they were trying to do there is they’re saying, “The new German way is most powerful, and we’re going to project power to the rest of the world through this great event.”
DUBNER: So how much did Jesse Owens ruin Hitler’s Olympic party?
MATHESON: Certainly some. If this is a big show of Aryan dominance, it didn’t go so well when the great Jesse Owens, the African-American track star, wins four gold medals, putting a bit of a nail into that coffin.
DUBNER: But do you think that throwing that kind of party in Berlin in 1936 did anything to allow Hitler to continue to strengthen what would turn out to be this Europe-wide and then global aggression? Do you think it did anything to build the movement that turned into the war?
MATHESON: I think it certainly sent the message that Germany was a force to be reckoned with. And to the extent that a big spectacle was popular among his own people — it gives him some ability to solidify his standing with his own people, because if you’re going to engage in a half-decade-long World War, you at least have to have your own people behind you — which, of course, he did for a while there.
DUBNER: Are you familiar with an idea known as the Streisand effect?
MATHESON: Yes. I feel a little weird as an economist talking about Barbra Streisand, but the Streisand effect basically comes from the idea that if you advertise things, people actually come and say, “Oh, we’re going to look more deeply into this.” So, if you have things to hide, maybe you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.
DUBNER: Yeah, I think what happened is that a photograph of her house, on the cliffs above the beach in Malibu was made public, and she felt her privacy was invaded and she sued — which ended up calling even more attention to the situation, and now everybody knew where Barbra Streisand’s house was. Along those lines, do you think that when a country like Russia or China or Saudi Arabia or Qatar engages in what we consider sportswashing, do you think it backfires, that they’re pulling a Streisand and focusing attention where they’d rather it not go?
MATHESON: I think we can look at two potential things where this is the case. If we go back to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a huge amount of attention was placed upon the fact that this was by far the most expensive games that have ever taken place, which got a lot of people thinking, “Well, why in the world would someone spend $51 billion putting on this event? And how in the world can this event be $51 billion? Is this just all corruption? And what do the people think about their money, in a moderately poor place like Russia, being spent on a three-week party?” I think even more so, when we’re looking at the World Cup that’s going to come up here in Qatar, this is a place where I think 95 percent of Americans couldn’t have identified Qatar on a map a decade ago. A lot more of them probably can now. But it also means that we’re learning a lot about Qatar.
DUBNER: And what have we been learning?
MATHESON: Well, some things are good. Al-Jazeera, as much as it sounds scary and foreign to Americans, it’s actually a pretty good news organization. And that’s in Doha in the capital of Qatar. But we also know that they’ve imported a huge number of foreign workers and placed these workers under terrible working conditions, confiscated their passports, not allowed them to leave. By some estimates I’ve seen that thousands of guest workers have died while they have been in Qatar. And also, treatment of their own citizens. Qatar is a very conservative country. The ability of women to have full participation in the workforce and in society, and that’s not to say anything about people like L.G.B.T.Q. community.
DUBNER: And even beyond sports — if you’re a pop singer, Victor, and I want to hire you to come perform at my daughter’s 13th birthday, and I happen to be an Emirati prince, and I offer you $2 million — I don’t hear people getting too distressed about that, or do we?
MATHESON: You certainly do see some people turn that money down. But again, 2 million bucks to play a birthday party — doesn’t matter if you’re Britney Spears or not, that’s still $2 million. And that’s hard to turn down.
DUBNER: You’re saying if someone asked you to come sing, you’d do it for $2 million?
MATHESON: Yes, I certainly would. And I’ll send you my standard contract after we get off this call.
DUBNER: Can I hear the demo tape first, though?
DUBNER: Does that mean you actually do sing?
MATHESON: Yes, I was a singer in college at a fairly good choir.
DUBNER: I did not know that.
MATHESON: So what should we do. “You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips.” I think that’s what we’ll end with.
I think that’s what we’ll end with too. Thanks to Victor Matheson — not just for his vocal audition but for speaking with us about sportswashing. Thanks also to Brandel Chamblee, Alan Shipnuck, Karen Crouse, and Bomani Jones. What do you think about sportswashing? Let us know; we’re at email@example.com.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Ryan Kelley. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Morgan Levey, Eleanor Osborne, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman; we had help this week from Jeremy Johnston.. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
A previous version of this episode included an incomplete characterization of fan reaction to the purchase of Newcastle United Football Club by an investment group led by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. That portion of the episode has been removed.
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- Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar, by Alan Shipnuck (2022).
- “The Shark Is on the Attack Again,” by Kent Babb (The Washington Post, 2022).
- “Dustin Johnson Paid £100m to Perform Late U-Turn and Join Saudi-Backed Rebel Series,” by By James Corrigan and Tom Morgan (The Telegraph, 2022).
- “Russia Was the Hottest Place in Sports. Now It’s Frozen Out,” by Joshua Robinson, Ben Cohen, and Louise Radnofsky (The Wall Street Journal, 2022).
- “Could This Be the Year ‘Sportwashing’ Backfires?” by Andrés Martinez (The Los Angeles Times, 2022).
- “The Truth About Phil and Saudi Arabia,” by Alan Shipnuck (The Fire Pit Collective, 2022).
- The New Yale Book of Quotations, by Fred Shapiro (2021).
- “The Surprising Reason That There Are So Many Thai Restaurants in America,” by Myles Karp (Vice, 2018).
- “Tax Breaks Power P.G.A. Tour Giving,” by Paula Lavigne (ESPN, 2013).
- “Words We’re Watching: ‘Streisand Effect’,” (Merriam-Webster).