Phil Mickelson doesn’t care about Saudi Arabia’s awful human rights record

not cool Phil

not cool Phil
image: Getty Images

Phil Mickelson will stop at nothing to defy the PGA Tour – he will not even willingly join the Saudis’ new golf league while admitting to its human rights abuses.

Alan Shipnuck, who will soon be publishing a biography of Mickelson, sent an excerpt from his book detailing Mickelson’s intention to join the Saudi-backed Super Golf League, which was formed to create a viable alternative to the PGA Tour and has done its best to lure big-name golfers away from the PGA.

Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau are two of the more well-known golfers who have been linked to the SGL, although many of the links are just rumors at the moment. But in Shipnuck’s clip, we get to see the mental gymnastics Mickelson engages in to make good on the knowledge he has of joining the SGL.

“You are creepy motherfuckers to get involved. We know they killed Khashoggi and have a terrible human rights record. They execute people there because they are gay. Knowing all this, why should I even consider it? Because this is a unique opportunity to reshape the way the PGA Tour works. They were able to get away with manipulative, coercive, powerful tactics because we, the players, had no way. Such a nice guy like [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as not doing the right thing unless you have leverage. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want that [the SGL] to be successful, but just imagining it allows us to get things done with the [PGA] Trip.”

He also describes the PGA as a dictatorship pretending to be a democracy, which he questions. This is a deeply intriguing look at the cognitive dissonance Mickelson is going through because unlike other golfers in the past, he tells us directly that he gets the point.

Sport can transcend many things in our world – political differences, language and cultural barriers, class differences, even international hostilities. At what point do we need to put a stop to this transcendence?

The Olympic Games have long been an example of walking that line, erasing the harsh realities of life in one country or another in what is known as “sportswashing.” Look at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, for instance, or Formula One races in Saudi Arabia, or even the 2022 Olympics — under the name of sport and tradition, those in charge expect viewers to compartmentalize their knowledge of human rights abuses in the name of good old fashioned friendly international competition.

The Saudis have been major proponents of sportswashing, and their newest venture, the Super Golf League, has thrown a sort of curveball to the golfers interested in being involved. Seemingly well aware of the reputation that Saudi Arabia has in terms of human rights, several golfers have been content to either excuse or defend the country in order to justify playing there.

When Tiger Woods declined to play in a tournament in Saudi Arabia in 2019, he stated that the travel distance was the reasoning behind sitting out, and when asked about criticism of the players who did choose to travel, said “I understand the politics behind it, but the game of golf can also help heal a lot of it.”

That kind of willComplete ignorance of believing that the game of golf will somehow cure human rights abuses is extremely pernicious in this situation. Another well-known player, Justin Rose, said of a tournament in Saudi Arabia in 2019: “I’m not a politician, I’m a professional golfer.”

Civil rights attorney and blogger Will Bardwell pointed this out in an excellent article on sportswear released Earlier this week, “the incentives for autocratic regimes to portray themselves positively are evident” through “the intentional use of elite sports to portray host nations as non-oppressive, progressive nations, when often they are anything but.”

In Bardwell’s blog post, he quotes Pacific University’s Department of Politics and Government Chair Jules Boykoff as saying: “Saudi Arabia has long drawn criticism for its human rights issues. It was able to stay ahead of the curve mainly due to the presence of oil. That helps – but also by leading countries like the United States to outshine that reality in order to maintain ties with them.” As the world becomes less dependent on Saudi Arabia’s main export, oil, they are turning to other forms of economic growth and of international image building.

And they made the right choice – above all, sport is the only thing that people really believe has the power to unite the world by existing over it. That’s the wild thing about Mickelson’s foray into this new league – he knows it won’t be the case. He realizes that golf is just golf, and he’s doing it to piss off the PGA because they won’t give him more money. Maybe it’s a matter of principle, but the principle boils down to who gets the money. His only concern is getting back at Monahan one way or another, and he doesn’t care what he has to go through to do it.

So does his acknowledgment of the country’s sins offset his decisions, or does it further encourage sports washing? It’s a deeply odd scenario that we find ourselves in, especially as Mickelson nears the end of his career. I know he wants to return to the PGA but at what future price? However, as long as he gets his money and media rights from SGL for his final seasons, I doubt he will care much about the future costs.

Mickelson’s comments aren’t well received, especially after he slammed the PGA Tour for their “insufferable greed” a few weeks ago. Pot meets kettle.

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