From Poulter to Arsenal: Facing up to sport’s painful paradox

There are some things that should never be seen, or heard. Because once seen, or heard, they cannot be unseen, or unheard. 

This applies especially, it would seem, with regard to the object of one’s hitherto respect and admiration. Ian Poulter’s press conference last week, for instance. 

The English golfer has not only almost single-handedly won Europe the Ryder Cup with his extraordinary passion and big match temperament — he seems to detest losing to the American team as much as Seve Ballesteros —  but he is also a devoted Gooner. 

But, now that I have seen and heard his dismal attempt at justifying his decision to play in the inaugural LIV breakaway golf event at the weekend, I cannot unsee or unhear it. 

“I don’t believe that it should be controversial”, was one of his relatively less embarrassing, but still cringeworthy, lines. 

My relationship with Poulter is wrenched asunder. Like seeing a large rat scuttle to and fro from the kitchen of one’s favourite local bistro, things will never be the same again. 

Now there is tarnish where once there was varnish. 

The Saudi Arabian financiers behind the LIV event miscalculated in choosing England as the location for the first event. They overlooked the fact that some actual journalists — as opposed to the mainly clubbable, largely pliable golf writers — would turn up and ask some journalistically probative questions. 

“If the money was right, is there anywhere you wouldn’t play on a moral basis?” Poulter was asked. Looking as shifty as someone trying to explain why, say, they keep $4-million in cash stuffed down the back of their sofa — by happy coincidence, the exact sum that the players in the inaugural tournament near London were playing for in prize money — a watery-eyed Poulter meekly mumbled something about “not having to answer such a hypothetical question”. 

The only thing that can be said in favour of Poulter is that his press conference was not quite as much of a train smash as Phil Mickelson’s. After two minutes of light banter about the golf and its unusual shotgun start, the organisers opened the presser up. 

First, Mickelson was reminded of the fact that he’d described the Saudis as “scary” a few months before, and then asked “If they’re that scary, why are you here given that they’re bankrolling this tournament?” 

Cringingly, Mickelson then skipped from claiming that he “does not condone human rights violations” to noting how “what happened to Jamal Khoshoggi was terrible” — as if all of the long catalogue of grave human rights transgressions could be isolated to the extra-judicial assassination of one investigative journalist — followed by the even more preposterous assertion that “the game of golf has done a lot of good and I believe that LIV golf is going to do so as well”, as if a few rounds of golf can either atone for or somehow transform one of the world’s most barbaric regimes. 

Women’s rights activists have been sentenced to prison; women were only permitted to drive in 2018; capital punishment is commonplace, including public beheadings and the execution of juveniles; judicial corporate punishment — such as amputation of the hands of robbers — is also permitted; torture is tacitly permissible; LGBT rights are not recognised and it would be rare for a public hospital to agree to treat an HIV-positive person; foreign workers are treated as second-class citizens and workers in general have few, if any, legal protections. 

Saudi Arabia is a very nasty place. But of course it is also very rich. And is now determined, as its neighbour Qatar has done, to use sport, and sporting sponsorship and ownership, to spin-rinse its global image. 

“Sport-washing” is the new term of art. And one that we are going to hear a lot more about over the coming years. Just as green-washing is being called out and will do huge reputational harm to those corporates who think they can pull the green wool over the eyes of investors, regulators and customers, so too those who allow their soft power to be used to scrub the bloodstains off the rug.

“Phil knows exactly what he’s doing, and he and his fellow LIV golfers should be ashamed,” said Terry Strada, the chair of victims’ relatives support group 9/11 Families United. “They are helping the Saudi regime sports-wash their reputation in return for tens of millions of dollars, at the very same time our government is rolling out more damning evidence of Saudi culpability in the 9/11 attacks.”

The journalist’s follow-up question to Mickelson put it to him that his legacy would be tarnished because he would become seen as a “Saudi stooge”. Mickelson tried to sustain his line about the good that golf can do, along with an obscure apology for offence he may have caused. 

Not so smart, Phil. It prompted an absolute cracker of a question for a British tabloid hack, who, as a breed, are unlikely to win any Pulitzer prizes but what they lack in high-end long-form journalism they more than make up for with their Rottweiler-like ability to go for the jugular: “Sorry, Phil, can I just clarify what it is you’re apologising for? Is it that you’re sorry for speaking the truth about the Saudis or for your shameless hypocrisy for taking their money anyway?”.

Good one. Ouch. Big Phil flinched. Having grown a dark stubble during his three-month break away from the game, he already looked decidedly dodgy. Now he looked and sounded like a convict. 

It was downhill from then on, especially when Mickelson tried to explain that joining LIV golf would help achieve better “life-work balance”. Asked about whether it was true that he would be paid $200m for joining LIV golf, Mickelson declined to deny the figure. 

When people worth $400m, according to Golf Monthly, and who have earned close to $100m in prize money alone from hitting a small white ball around a large, manicured field, start talking about better life balance, as if they are struggling single mums trying to balance the stress of her new job in the marketing division with two small kids, then you know that the game is out of touch with any form of reality.  

Not that there are not the proverbial grey areas to navigate. Sports-washing raises tricky questions of personal ethics — and not just for the sporting megastars. Also for the fans — at least those who seek to live their personal values and try to avoid falling into a Mickelsonian well of hypocrisy. 

I had an interesting public conversation on this topic with Cape Talk’s estimable anchor, Lester Kiewit, recently. He asked me about Arsenal Football Club’s “Visit Rwanda” message that adorns the players’ shirts. Wasn’t this an affront to my own normative standpoint? 

(Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

I tried to defend my willingness to turn a blind eye, on the basis that there I wasn’t turning a blind eye because, in fact, there was nothing really to turn a blind eye to. I think I managed to avoid saying “I don’t condone human rights violations anywhere”, but I may well have strayed into the Mickelson-Poulter lane of vacuous self-justification with something along the lines of “well, Rwanda is not so bad; it’s not Saudi. And, in the context of the genocidal horrors of less than 30 years ago, a bit of strong-arm leadership by [Paul] Kagame may well be justifiable”. 

Hmmm. Probably not my proudest moment. Perhaps, like Poulter, I should try and keep my politics out of my Arsenal, or The Arsenal out of my politics. 

Here’s the painful paradox. Sport is wrapped in political economy; it cannot escape politics, however much it might want to, or we might want it to. It is enwrapped in, and an extension of, the world of politics. 

But when the players and the fans seek to explain away their hypocrisy, then the scales fall away from the eyes. All is revealed: the naked, pitiful ignorance; the vainglorious pursuit of wealth. 

Like a sausage, it really is advisable not to find out what goes inside it.   

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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