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Questions on sports ethics

MICK DE PAOLA-UNSPLASH

Several days ago, the controversial Saudi Public Investment Fund-financed LIV Golf Invitational Series crowned its first winner, 37-year-old South African Charl Schwartzel. Not (yet exactly) a prominent member of golf’s who’s who, Schwartzel however has one major title — the US 2011 Masters — under his belt. He was one of 17 players who were immediately suspended by the PGA Tour for participating in the unsanctioned tournament. Among the others were Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Graeme McDowell, Phil Mickelson, Ian Poulter, and Lee Westwood.

Why the suspensions? Why is the involvement of the Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund controversial? These questions should be viewed from various perspectives: the sport or the game itself, the players, the fans, the partners and sponsors, and ethical and moral issues.

The answer to the first question is found in the letter of PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, quoted by senior writer Dylan Dethier of Golf.com, a professional golf news network: “A release from (Monahan) came through as the pros were on their second holes on Thursday and Monahan didn’t mince words: The tour players in the LIV (pronounced like ‘give’) field were immediately suspended from participating in any PGA Tour events. The duration of their suspensions was not immediately clear, ‘These players have made their own choice for their own financial-based reasons. A list of suspended pros followed at the bottom of the letter.’”

The PGA Tour is the organizer of the main men’s professional golf tour in the United States and North America. The nonprofit organization was spun off in 1968 from the Professional Golfers Association of America which is comprised of club professionals (professional golfers based in certain clubs as golf directors or teaching pros). The PGA Tour recognizes wins and records from back to April 1916 when the Professional Golfers Association of America was formed. It organizes an almost weekly series of tournaments known as the PGA Tour, as well championships such as PGA Tour champions (for players ages 50 years and above) and the Korn Ferry Tour (a developmental tournament for professionals who have not yet qualified to play in the PGA Tour). It also organizes tours in Canada, Latin America, and interestingly, China, whose own human rights records will later be compared with Saudi Arabia, the backer of the LIV Invitational Series.

LIV was embroiled in controversy the moment it was announced that the Saudis would bankroll the $280-million world series with eye-popping prize money and appearance fees. It billed itself, according to writers Tarig Panja and Andrew Das, as “an opportunity to reinvigorate golf” through rich paydays, star players, and slick marketing. “Golf but louder” goes one of its slogans. For the generally genteel, and, at times, staid world of professional golf, the remarks were almost immediately met with some raised eyebrows, especially from the golf establishment. LIV is the Roman numeral for 54, the number of holes played in all LIV events and the score over 18 holes if one birdies every hole in a par 72 course.

LIV hopes to position itself as a “player-power focused alternative” to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century, according to Pamja and Das. One wonders however what “player-power focused alternative” means when all sports leagues and tournaments have that as their main objective and move heaven and earth to promote it — and actually do it — whether it is golf, basketball, volleyball, formula car racing, horse racing, track and field, swimming, or rugby. One thing is sure, however, the Saudis and other Gulf countries have found sport and tourism to be tools to show the rest of the world that one can live “normally” in these places despite strict dress codes, rules on public displays of affection, and other restrictions, and most specially their — as Phil Mickelson himself called it — “horrible human rights records.”

Some people have called it an attempt to “sportswash,” using sport to divert peoples’ attention from cases like the murder of journalist Adnan Khashoggi in 2018. In the case of Qatar, human rights and labor groups have decried abusive labor practices, especially in the construction of facilities for and related to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. So, we have Gulf countries now reaching out to the more mature, older and more established professionals by sponsoring and financing events like formula car racing, and golf events and series like LIV.

The LIV has not attracted the crème de la crème of golf at this time. Critics say that LIV is just a plain money grab. Tiger Woods, despite tempting offers that reportedly approximate a billion US dollars, has refused to take the bait and reminded everyone that he owes his success to the PGA Tour and will not forget that. That’s an exemplary act of gratitude.

Rory McIlroy has shunned the offers too.

The reason why only 17 out of LIV’s 48-man inaugural field were suspended from the PGA Tour was that only 17 LIV players are qualified for the PGA Tour in the first place. That 48-man field which teed off in shotgun fashion (players tee off simultaneously from different holes and tour the course in normal sequential fashion for the rest of the game) at Club Centurion included a 15-year-old Thai golfer.

No doubt the LIV is the richest tournament in golf history — the total purse in the June 9 event amounted to $25 million (P1.25 billion), with $20 million for the individual event and $5 million more to split in the team competition. The winner’s share is $4 million and the last place finished at each event is guaranteed $120,000 (P6 million). And there are appearance fees paid for simply being present. In comparison, Scottie Scheffler, winner of the 2022 US Masters Open of the United States Golf Association, won $2.7 million.

This early, one can say that LIV has a strong potential to create some kind of disorder and chaos in a sport which has been constantly creating innovations in rules, equipment, and which has aligned itself with development goals of sustainability and protecting the ecosystem. But coming close to its heels is the issue of sports fan ethics.

Per writer Joseh Sens: “Stick to sports! So goes the mantra of irritated fans who say they’d rather have their entertainment stripped of all the rest. The desire is understandable. And unrealistic. Sports have never been played out in isolation. Not the ancient-day Olympics. Not in the modern-day NFL.”

In an effort to give some clarity in what writer Sean Zak has called a chaotic week with LIV golf leaving professional golf in disarray, Zak calls on Don Helder, professor of social ethics at the University of Santa Clara in California and chief executive of the school’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics to get Helder’s insights on sports-fan “rights” and “wrongs,” specifically with reference to LIV Golf and its Saudi financial backing. Asked about whether fans should mix sports with politics, Helder states, among other things, “…. as citizens we all have an ethical obligation to our community and to the world. Nothing is ‘only.’

“Sports is connected to power and politics, and we should be aware of these connections and their consequences. So, if you are a golf fan who is uneasy with LIV Golf’s funding, should you not watch? It depends, says Helder, on how seriously you take your ethical obligations. I do think that fans can vote with their eyeballs by not going to tournaments and not watching them, it’s a way to have a voice, of saying, ‘I can’t in good conscience support an event or a league that is sponsored by a regime that conducts itself in ways that are a violation of what I believe.’”

On the other hand, the PGA Tour has hosted events in China. Is there a meaningful ethical difference, Sens asks? And certainly there are many others asking.

Philip Ella Juico’s areas of interest include the protection and promotion of democracy, free markets, sustainable development, social responsibility and sports as a tool for social development. He obtained his doctorate in business at De La Salle University. Dr. Juico served as secretary of Agrarian Reform during the Corazon C. Aquino administration.

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