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The PGA Tour’s merger with Saudi Arabia’s LIV Tour is only the latest example of “sportswashing”: Here are lessons for PR

by | Jun 8, 2023 | Public Relations

When I was a youngster, I believed the sports world’s hype that sports is all ice cream and cake and that the moguls of the business and their employees, the athletes, should be considered on a par with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers who fought for American independence against a tyrannical king.

But I quickly became disillusioned of the above pipe dream, when as a young sports reporter I was assigned to cover a workout of a high school football team.

During the workout, the coach—also a member of the teaching faculty—instructed his linemen to scoop up dirt and throw it into the opposing team’s linemen. When I questioned the coach about his instructions, he became enraged and chased me around the locker room. A couple of the football players held him back and told me that I better get out of the room before he breaks free.

I wrote the story and my editor tore it up saying that the Public School Athletic League would get “mad at us” if we published the story. Today, a story like that would probably lead a sports section, and was an example of what today is known as “sportswashing,” which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as, “the practice of an organization, a government, a country, etc. supporting sport or organizing sports events as a way to improve its reputation.”

While the term “sporstwashing” is relatively new and will appear in articles about the merger between golf’s PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s LIV Tour, the practice of it is ancient as PR practitioners know, or should know, when forming sports marketing account teams because controversy and sports go together like peanut butter and jelly, or to be more realistic, sports and money.

If I would detail all the examples of sportswashing, there would be enough to line the walls of the Library of Congress

So below are a few starting with the actions of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In 1936, despite it being known that the Nazis were persecuting Jews, and other people that they considered undesirable, the IOC permitted Germany to host the summer and winter Olympics. (The first concentration camp, Dachau, was already in use. It became the template for other concentration camps.)

Even after World War 2, started by Germany three years after the Nazi Olympics, the IOC didn’t change its position about totalitarian governments. In 1968 the IOC awarded its game to Mexico, despite the country’s single-party, authoritarian government. Twice, the IOC awarded its games to Russia in 1980 and again in 2014 and another totalitarian government Yugoslavia hosted the games in 1984. In 2008, China was given the Summer Olympics and the 2022 Winter Beijing Olympics.

What do all of these Olympic Games have in common? They were all awarded to totalitarian regimes by the Olympic powers and American sponsors meekly “followed the athletes,” no matter where the games were played.

Also, the IOC has consistently permitted some athletes from Muslim countries to continue in their games despite their refusing to compete against athletes from Israel.

The IOC has always claimed that its games are free of politics. As a PR practitioner, whose first job was with a political PR firm and who has also played key roles in Olympics programs since 1984, I have always found the claim to be disingenuous.

Politics has always played an important role in the Olympics, in fact in all sports, local and in the international arena. FIFA, the international governing body of association football (soccer in the U.S.) also has a long and disgraceful record of playing footsie with totalitarian regimes.
Controversy was the operative word during the preparations for the 2022 World Cup in autocratic Qatar and during the tournament when teams were threatened with sanctions if they publicly opposed the host country. Like the IOC, FIFA has also awarded its games to repressive regimes. Mussolini’s Italy hosted in 1934 and the Argentine stratocracy in 1978.

Of course, the National Football League has been practicing sportswashing for decades because of the negative media coverage it has received regarding concussions.

A couple of examples:

  • On February 13, a few days after this year’s Super Bowl, Ken Belson authored a full page story in the New York Times detailing the tragedies suffered by members of the 1972 Super Bowl champions Miami Dolphins. The article told how chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), the brain destroying disease caused by repeated hits to the head, led to the change in behavior of three N.F.L. stars and eventually resulted in their deaths.
  • On January 4, the Times DealBook (Business) column reported, “Violence is increasingly the focus as football participation rates fall. The N.F.L., which has set an annual revenue goal of $25 billion by 2027, has spent millions trying to shift the narrative from the more violent aspects of the game amid a string of high-profile player injuries. The league recently opened an investigation into the handling of a concussion suffered by the Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa; Hamlin’s teammate, the Bills cornerback Dane Jackson, was immobilized after hurting his neck in a game.” And it’s common knowledge, because it has been reported extensively, that the NFL for years denied that nexus between football and concussions and attempted to destroy the reputations of medical researchers who said that there was a link.

So it should be no surprise that the PGA merger with a totalitarian government with proven human rights violations happened, because the most important aspect of sports is not what happens on the playing fields, but what happens in the cash registers. What amazed me was that it took so long for the hypocrisy of the golf moguls to become public.

Sports marketers have always been under the gun for continuing to support the IOC when it delivered its propaganda-rich games to totalitarian countries that have committed widely known atrocities over many years. “We just follow the athletes” is their template answer.

Now that Saudi Arabia has been welcomed into the sports family, American sports marketing sponsors that support the merged golf tours are probably now meeting with their public relations and advertising agencies to develop strategies on how to respond to negative media coverage

One strategy that is off-the-boards, you can bet the farm, is to tell the truth that making money is the most important aspect that a company considers when deciding to become a “proud partner” with a sports entity, because when the subject is sports, morality is a sin word and money is the favorite word.

Sponsoring golfers and PGA tournaments has long been a sponsor’s favorite because of its none involvement with politics. That facade has now been shattered. The merger with the tyrannical Saudi government is bad news for believers that sports should not be used as a “sportswashing” tool by totalitarian governments. An excuse can be made for democratic governments to change pleasantries with the Saudi’s because of oil and security needs. The same is not true for the PGA or any sports marketing sponsor that “follows the athletes” into the repressive playing fields of despotic governments.

But PR firms are probably all in favor of the merger because it means that more U.S. sports marketing clients will come under attack for supporting games in a country devoid of human rights. And that means the sponsors will increasingly turn to their public relations agencies for advice.

The merger is probably also a happy occurrence for a subset of our business—the PR crisis specialists who are happiest when negative coverage requires their help.

My advice to PR agencies: Make certain that your sports marketing account team includes a person who has the background necessary to respond to negative media coverage and not wither under incoming flak

Already the 2024 Summer Olympics in France, a democratic country, is coming under attack because of the IOC’s support of Belarus and Russian athletes to participate in the games.

Assigning sports junkies to sports marketing accounts is not a good idea. Staff the account teams with people who realize that sports is as much a business as any other account that the agency handles. And begin planning your responses for clients that sponsor golf tournaments right now, because it’s a certainty you’ll need them to respond to reporters’ questions.

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.

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