LIV Golf changes the role of golf in “sportswashing”
This case of what has become known as “sportswashing” is nothing new. Examples abound of authoritarian regimes trying to use elite sports to cover up brutality or human rights abuses – ranging from Berlin Olympics 1936 to Sochi 2014 Olympics. What makes LIV different is that it’s something new, instead of a diet that clings to an already big sporting event like the Olympics or the World Cup.
This makes it difficult to separate the new organization from its Saudi backers, which has blunted support for the new league. Despite the support of former President Donald Trump – whose golf clubs host several LIV events – when LIV CEO Greg Norman met with the conservative Republican study committee on September 21, members questioned the links between the league and the Saudi regime. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) describes the whole thing like “RP for Saudi Arabia”.
What’s most interesting about the spectacle surrounding LIV is that it’s the opposite of how golf often plays out in politics. Usually, the time between strokes and the private nature of non-professional golf outings prove ideal for politics – including sportwashing.
Nothing illustrates this better than golf’s most successful attempt at sportswashing: when a Caribbean dictator used tournaments hosted by a famous Washington lawyer to rebrand his regime.
In 1930, taking advantage of the political instability in the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo used his control of the military to seize the presidency. He quickly amassed a nationalist sequel through its militarism, investments in public infrastructure and xenophobic anti-black racism. This populism has mixed with a 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, drained millions from Dominican industries and coffers, and controlled a sectarian political party who spied on his fellow citizens across the country while spreading the motto “God and Trujilo.
World War II triggered multiple challenges to its near-ubiquitous understanding.
One of the dictator’s first attempts to manipulate public relations followed his encouragement to 1937 Parsley Massacre – in which patrols of Dominican soldiers and peasants roamed the Haitian-Dominican border and massacred hundreds of Haitians, including those born in the Dominican Republic. This sparked international outrage from Haitian officials, Dominican exiles scattered across the Americas, American newspapers and Congress, with many comparing the massacre to atrocities carried out by the Japanese military in Southeast Asia. In an attempt to deflect and overshadow the uproar, the dictator launched a international media campaignincreased its funding of charitable organizations and affirmed its unconditional support for the efforts of the United States government against the Axis powers.
These measures allowed Trujillo access to American armaments that supported his government, but his authoritarianism stood in stark contrast to the democratic ideals of the Allies at the end of World War II.
Anti-Trujillo exiles have networked with like-minded allies across the Western Hemisphere to protest the dictator. This campaign included journalist Albert Hicks publishing a telling account of atrocities perpetrated by Trujillo officials and US Assistant Secretary of State for US Affairs Spruille Braden. cut arms sales to the Dominican Republic. These and other events damaged Trujillo’s image globally, leaving him worried that it might ultimately erode his power.
With this in mind, Trujillo sought to rebrand its image in the United States. In 1946, his government retained the services of lobbyist Homer S. Cummings, a former United States Attorney General. Through his years in Washington, Cummings made many friendly social contacts among political and business elites. These contacts even enabled the famous lawyer to hold a biannual golf tournament at Pinehurst Country Club in North Carolina. Dating back to 1933, Cummings’ tournaments regularly included members of Congress, White House officials and industry titans, including Chrysler Corp. Chairman KT Keller. The tournament was the event of the season, significant enough to attract the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
By hiring Cummings, Trujillo gained access to this elite tournament and its influential following. After taking on the dictator as a client, Cummings expanded his invite list to include additional lobbyists on Trujillo’s payroll. The first to attend one of Cummings’ tournaments was William A. Morgan, a noted physician who treated influential Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.). Outside of his medical practice, however, Morgan has repeatedly spoken out on Trujillo’s behalf, bragging about his work for a workers’ hospital in the Dominican Republic.
Serving as Trujillo’s agents, Cummings and Morgan used the golf tournament to eulogize 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 frivolities of the participants to describe the services Morgan’s charities 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 used the camaraderie of the golf tournament to boost Trujillo’s reputation.
This pattern would continue for more than a decade through Democratic and Republican administrations. The movement was sportwashing in its essence: Under the radar, Trujillo subtly remade his image at jovial, intimate golf tournaments filled with opinion leaders who could shape how the general public views the dictator.
Due to silent lobbying at the Pinehurst tournaments, Trujillo enjoyed a favorable reputation in the United States until the late 1950s. Given the conversations occupying the long breaks between swings on the course, golf became proved to be the ideal place to lobby those who direct American foreign policy without the public being told about the public relations campaign.
This sporty wash under the radar on the course is the complete opposite of what the House of Saud is doing with LIV Golf.
The backlash they’ve faced — and the contrast to Trujillo’s successful efforts — may indicate that sportswashing works best under the radar, where there’s less chance of opposition.
Yet even the most savvy sportswashing can only mask the brutality for so long – something also exhibited by Trujillo. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the failed invasion of the Dominican Republic in June 1959 by Dominican exiles inspired a wave of protests in the country. In response, in June 1960, Trujillo ordered the car bomb attack on Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt and soon after approved the murder of the Minerva sisters, 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 military officials, assassinated the dictator, leaving the nation struggling with a legacy of violence and corruption that a handful of golf tournaments could not eradicate.