There are things that cannot be seen or heard. Because once seen or heard, they can no longer be unseen or unheard.
In particular, this seems to apply to the subject that is still respected and admired. Press conference by Ian Poulter last week for example.
The English golfer not only almost single-handedly won the Ryder Cup in Europe thanks to his extraordinary passion and playing temperament (he seems to hate losing to the American team as much as Sev Ballesteros), but he is also a dedicated bully.
But now that I have seen and heard his grim attempt to justify his decision to play first LIV golf competition on weekends I can neither unsee nor hear.
“I don’t think it should cause controversy,” was one of his relatively less embarrassing but still annoying lines.
My relationship with Poulter is broken. It’s like watching a big rat scurry back and forth from the kitchen of your favorite local bistro: things will never be the same again.
Now there is a tarnish where the varnish once was.
The Saudi Arabian financiers behind the LIV event miscalculated by choosing England as the venue for the first event. They overlooked the fact that some real journalists—as opposed to mostly clubbing and largely malleable golf writers—turned up and asked some journalistic probative questions.
“If the money was right, where would you not play for moral reasons?” Poulter asked. Looks as cunning as someone trying to explain why, say, they keep $4 million in cash tucked into the back of their couch – by happy coincidence, the exact amount the players in the first tournament near London were playing prize money for – the blind-sighted Poulter meekly mumbled something to the effect that “it is not necessary to answer such a hypothetical question.”
The only thing that can be said in favor of Poulter is that his press conference was not quite the same train wreck as Phil Mickelson’s. After two minutes of light banter about golf and its unusual shotgun start, the organizers opened the press conference.
First, Mickelson was reminded of calling the Saudis “scary” a few months ago, then asked, “If they’re so scary, why are you here, considering they’re funding this tournament?”
Unfortunately, Mickelson then moved from stating that he “does not condone human rights violations” to noting how “what happened to jamal khoshoggi was horrendous”—as if the whole long list of gross human rights violations could be reduced to the extrajudicial killing of an investigative journalist—followed by the even more ridiculous assertion that “playing golf has done a lot of good and I believe LIV golf will do the same.” as if a few rounds of golf could either redeem or somehow change one of the most barbaric regimes in the world.
Women’s rights activists were sentenced to prison terms; women were only allowed to drive in 2018; the death penalty is commonplace, including public beheadings and juvenile executions; judicial corporate punishment is also allowed – for example, chopping off the hands of robbers; torture is tacitly permitted; LGBT rights are not recognized and a public hospital rarely agrees to treat an HIV positive person; foreign workers are treated like second-class citizens and, in general, workers have little to no legal protection.
Saudi Arabia is a very unpleasant country. But of course, he is also very rich. And now she is determined, as her neighbor Qatar did, to use sports, sports sponsorship and property to improve her global image.
“Sports wash” is a new term in art. And one that we’ll hear about in the coming years. Just as there is a call for greenwashing that will do enormous damage to the reputation of those corporations that think they can pull green wool in the eyes of investors, regulators and customers, the same can be said for those who allow their soft force to clean blood stains from carpet.
“Phil knows exactly what he’s doing and he and his fellow LIV golfers should be ashamed,” said Terry Strada, chairman of the 9/11 Families United “relatives of the victims” support group. “They are helping the Saudi regime clean up their reputation in exchange for tens of millions of dollars, at the same time our government is putting forward more compelling evidence of Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks.”
The journalist’s subsequent question to Mickelson showed him that his legacy would be tarnished because he would be seen as a “Saudi puppet”. Mickelson tried to uphold his line about the good that golf can bring, along with a vague apology for the hurt he may have caused.
Not so smart, Phil. This caused an absolute hack for the British tabloid, which as a breed is unlikely to win any Pulitzer Prizes, but what they lack in high-end journalism, they more than make up for with their Rottweiler-like ability to go to the jugular: “Sorry, Phil , can I just clarify what you’re apologizing for? Is it because you regret telling the truth about the Saudis, or your shameless hypocrisy for taking their money anyway?”
Not bad. Ouch. Big Phil winced. Having grown a dark stubble in a three-month break from the game, he already looked decidedly quirky. Now he looked and spoke like a convict.
Since then, things have gone downhill, especially when Mickelson tried to explain that participating in LIV golf would help achieve a better “work-life balance.” Asked if it was true that he would be paid $200 million to play LIV golf, Mickelson declined to deny the figure.
When people with a net worth of $400 million, according to Golf Monthly, and who have earned about $100 million in prize money just for hitting a small white ball on a large manicured field, start talking about better life balance, as if they are fighting single mothers. trying to balance the stress of his new job in marketing with two young kids, then you know the game has no connection to any form of reality.
Not that there aren’t notorious gray areas to navigate. Sports laundry raises tricky questions of personal ethics — and not just for sports megastars. Also for fans – at least those who strive to live their personal values and try not to fall into Mickelson’s well of hypocrisy.
I had an interesting public conversation on this topic with Dear Cape Talk host, Lester Kiwit, recently. He asked me about the “Visit Rwanda” message from Arsenal Football Club that adorns the players’ jerseys. Was it an insult to my own normative point of view?
I tried to defend my willingness to close my eyes by not closing my eyes here, because, in fact, there was nothing to close my eyes to. I think I’ve managed to avoid the phrase “I’m not condoning human rights violations anywhere”, but I could very well have strayed from the path of Mickelson-Poulter’s empty self-justification with something along the lines of “Well, Rwanda isn’t that bad; it’s not the Saudis. And, in the context of the horrors of the genocide less than 30 years ago, a bit of tough leadership from [Paul] Kagame may well be justified.”
Hm. Probably not the most proud moment. Perhaps, like Poulter, I should try to keep my politics out of my Arsenal, or Arsenal out of my politics.
Here is a painful paradox. Sport is shrouded in political economy; it cannot escape politics, however much it wants to, or however much we want it to. It is shrouded in the world of politics and is its continuation.
But when players and fans try to justify their hypocrisy, the veil falls from their eyes. Everything is exposed: naked, pitiful ignorance; vain desire for wealth.
As with the sausage, it’s really advisable not to find out what’s inside it.