LIV Golf is changing the role of golf in 'sportswashing'

LIV Golf is changing the role of golf in ‘sportswashing’

The newly formed LIV Golf league has garnered months of headlines, both for how it has disrupted the sport and also because the organization is financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The billions of dollars sunk into the league to recruit stars like Cameron Smith, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson — and now possibly to buy TV time to air LIV’s events — appear to be an attempt by the Saudi monarchy to downplay its authoritarian government and improve its overall picture.

This case of what’s become known as “sportswashing” is nothing new. Examples abound of authoritarian regimes trying to use elite sports to gloss over brutality or human rights violations—ranging from the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. What makes LIV different is that it’s something new, instead of a regime latching onto an already prominent sporting event like the Olympics or the World Cup.

That makes it difficult to separate the newfound organization from its Saudi backers, which has dulled support for the new league. Despite the backing of former president Donald Trump — whose golf clubs are hosting multiple LIV events — when LIV CEO Greg Norman met with the conservative Republican Study Committee on Sept. 21, members questioned the links between the league and the Saudi regime. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) described the entire affair as “PR for Saudi Arabia.”

What’s most interesting about the spectacle surrounding LIV is that it is the polar opposite of the way that golf often plays into politics. Usually, the time between shots and the private nature of nonprofessional golf outings prove ideal for politicking — including sportswashing.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the most successful attempt of sportswashing achieved through golf: when a Caribbean dictator used tournaments hosted by a famous Washington lawyer to rebrand his regime.

In 1930, taking advantage of the Dominican Republic’s political instability, Rafael Trujillo leveraged his control of the military to seize the presidency. He quickly amassed a nationalistic following thanks to his militarism, investments in public infrastructure and xenophobic anti-Black racism. This populism interwove with an intense culture of violence and fear as he ordered the assassination of hundreds of political opponents at home and abroad, imprisoned many more in concentration camps, leeched millions from Dominican industries and coffers and controlled a cultish political party that spied on fellow citizens across the nation while disseminating the motto “God and Trujillo.”

World War II unleashed multiple challenges to his near-ubiquitous grasp.

One of the dictator’s first attempts at manipulating public relations followed his encouragement of the 1937 Parsley Massacre — in which patrols of Dominican soldiers and peasants roamed the Haitian-Dominican border and slaughtered hundreds of Haitians, including those born in the Dominican Republic. This prompted international outrage from Haitian officials, Dominican exiles scattered throughout the Americas, US newspapers and Congress, with many comparing the massacre to the atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese military in Southeast Asia. In an attempt to deflect and overshadow the uproar, the dictator launched an international media campaign, upped his funding of charities and affirmed his unconditional support for the US government’s efforts against the Axis Powers.

These moves provided Trujillo with access to US armaments that propped up his government, but his authoritarianism stood in stark contrast to the Allies’ democratic ideals as World War II came to an end.

Anti-Trujillo exiles networked with like-minded allies throughout the Western Hemisphere to protest the dictator. This campaign included journalist Albert Hicks publishing a revealing account of atrocities perpetrated by Trujillo’s officials and US Assistant Secretary of State for American Affairs Spruille Braden cutting off arms sales to the Dominican Republic. These and other events hurt Trujillo’s image on a global scale, leaving him concerned that it could ultimately erode his power.

With this in mind, Trujillo sought to rebrand his image in the United States. In 1946, his government retained the services of lobbyist Homer S. Cummings, to form US attorney general. Thanks to his years in Washington, Cummings enjoyed numerous friendly social contacts among political and economic elites. These contacts even allowed the famous lawyer to hold a biannual golf tournament at Pinehurst Country Club in North Carolina. Dating back to 1933, Cummings’s tournaments regularly included members of Congress, White House officials and industry titans including Chrysler Corp. President KT Keller. The tournament was the event of the season — important enough to capture the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

By hiring Cummings, Trujillo received access to this elite tournament and its influential audience. After taking on the dictator as a client, Cummings expanded his invitation list to include additional lobbyists on Trujillo’s payroll. The first to attend one of Cummings’s tournaments was William A. Morgan, a reputable physician who treated the influential Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.). Outside of his medical practice, however, Morgan repeatedly spoke on behalf of Trujillo, boasting of his work for a Workers’ Hospital in the Dominican Republic.

Serving as Trujillo’s agents, Cummings and Morgan used the golf tournament to heap praise upon the dictator. During the April 1947 tournament, which included everyone from Sen. Brien McMahon (D-Conn.) to Leslie Biffle, a close friend of President Harry S. Truman, Cummings interrupted the attendees’ frivolities to describe Morgan’s charitable services in the Dominican Republic at the dictator’s expense. By celebrating Trujillo’s good works without mentioning his and Morgan’s role as paid lobbyists, Cummings took advantage of the golf tournament’s camaraderie to burnish Trujillo’s reputation.

This pattern would continue for over a decade through both Democratic and Republican administrations. The move was sportswashing at its essence: Below the radar, Trujillo subtly remade his image during the jovial and intimate golf tournaments full of opinion leaders who could shape how the broader public perceived the dictator.

Due to the quiet lobbying at the Pinehurst tournaments, Trujillo enjoyed a favorable reputation in the United States into the late 1950s. Considering the conversations occupying the long pauses between swings on the course, golf proved the perfect venue to lobby those directing US foreign policy without the public learning of the public relations campaign.

This below-the-radar sportswashing on the course is quite the opposite of what the House of Saud is doing with LIV Golf.

The backlash they’ve confronted — and the contrast with Trujillo’s successful effort — may indicate that sportswashing works better below the radar, where there is less chance for opposition.

Yet even the savviest sportswashing can only mask brutality for so long — something also exposed by Trujillo. The 1959 Cuban Revolution and Dominican exiles’ failed June 1959 invasion of the Dominican Republic inspired a wave of protest in the country. In response, in June 1960, Trujillo ordered the car-bombing of Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt and soon after approved the murder of sisters Minerva, María Teresa and Patria Mirabal. These sensational events betrayed the benevolent image he had propagated for 30 years.

In May 1961, dissidents including some of Trujillo’s own military officials assassinated the dictator, leaving the nation to grapple with a legacy of violence and corruption that a handful of golf tournaments could not sportswash away.

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