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

Not cool, Phil.
Image: Getty Images

Phil Mickelson will stop at nothing to spite the PGA Tour — not even willingly joining up with the Saudis’ new golf league while simultaneously acknowledging their human rights abuses.

Alan Shipnuck, who has a biography of Mickelson coming out soon, posted an excerpt from his book on Mickelson’s intent to join the Saudi-backed Super Golf League, which was formed in an attempt to create a real alternative to the PGA Tour and has been doing 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 connected to the SGL, although much of the connections are little but rumors at the moment. But in Shipnuck’s excerpt, we get to see the mental gymnastics that Mickelson is performing in order to make it okay for himself, with the knowledge that he has, to join the SGL.

“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with. We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the SGL] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”

He also refers to the PGA as a dictatorship pretending to be a democracy, which he takes issue with. This is such a deeply fascinating look into the cognitive dissonance that Mickelson is going through, because unlike other golfers in the past, he tells us straight up that he understands what’s at stake.

Sport can transcend a lot in our world — political disagreement, language and cultural barriers, class differences, even international hostility. At what point do we have to put a stop to that 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 also the game of golf can help heal a lot of that, too.”

This sort of willful ignorance, to believe that the game of golf would somehow heal human rights abuses, is extremely harmful in this situation. Another big-name player, Justin Rose, said in 2019 of a tournament in Saudi Arabia, ““I’m not a politician, I’m a pro golfer.”

Civil rights attorney and blogger Will Bardwell pointed out in an excellent piece on sportswashing he published earlier this week, “the incentives for autocratic regimes to paint themselves favorably are obvious” through “the intentional use of high-level sports to paint host nations as unoppressive, progressive nations, when they frequently are anything but.”

In Bardwell’s blog post, he quotes Pacific University’s Politics and Government Department chair Jules Boykoff as saying, “Saudi Arabia has been catching flak for its human rights problems for a long time. It has been able to stay ahead of it, first of all, by having oil. That helps — but also by getting countries like the United States to shine over that reality to keep relations with them.” As the world grows less and less dependent on Saudi Arabia’s main export, oil, they are turning to other forms of economic growth and international image-making.

And they picked right — sports are, above all, the one thing that people truly believe have the power to unite the world by existing above it. That’s what is so wild about Mickelson’s venture into this new league — he knows it won’t. He realizes that golf is just golf, and he’s doing this whole thing to spite the PGA because they won’t give him more money. Maybe it’s a principle thing, but the principle comes down to who is getting the money. His singular concern is to get back at Monahan one way or another, and he doesn’t care who he has to go through to do so.

So does his acknowledgement of the country’s sins make up for his choices, or does it further encourage sportswashing? It’s a deeply odd scenario to find ourselves in, especially as Mickelson nears the end of his career. I know he wants to get back at the PGA, but at what future cost? I doubt he cares much about the future cost, though, as long as he’s getting his money and media rights from the SGL for his last few seasons.

Mickelson’s comments aren’t sitting particularly well, particularly after he critiqued the PGA Tour a few weeks ago for their “obnoxious greed.” Pot, meet kettle.

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