Should Chicago-area fans of professional golf boycott the Saudi Arabia-funded LIV Golf Invitational being held at Rich Harvest Farms in September?
I will be staying away from the tournament in Kane County, especially after seeing family members of people killed on 9/11 stage a protest outside LIV Golf’s tournament venue in New Jersey. The 9/11 Families United protestors objected to a Saudi-sponsored sporting event so close to New York as dishonoring 9/11 victims.
Adding to the controversy, the tournament was played on a golf course owned by former President Donald Trump. His promotional comments to a journalist, particularly about Saudi Arabia getting “billions of dollars” in publicity by underwriting LIV Golf, did not sit well with many observers.
LIV Golf’s eight-city tour will stop in the Chicago area just days after the 21st anniversary of 9/11. We still remember how the hijackers who perpetrated massive terror and death on US soil were mostly men from Saudi Arabia devoted to al-Qaida. Is that a reason to boycott or protest the tournament at Rich Harvest Farms? Yes, but there are other compelling reasons.
The kingdom and its ruling royal family have bought their way into international professional golf in a highly divisive way. Do you like the idea of Saudi Arabia disrupting venerable American and European pro golf organizations in an effort to paper over its rulers’ dismal human rights record? I don’t.
Nor do I like how LIV Golf lured star golfers to its tour with guaranteed mega-money for just showing up. That downgrades the spirited week-in, week-out individual competition that makes golf somewhat special among pro sports. The 48 players who have signed on to LIV Golf have set a new standard in the sporting world for greed, disloyalty and indifference to human rights violations.
For those not familiar with the new LIV Golf tour, it is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Its organizers have attracted leading international golfers to join, including popular players such as Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Phil Mickelson.
LIV Golf critics include golf legends and champions Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rory McElroy, as well as Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations, members of Congress, sports columnists and everyday amateur golfers.
I have nothing against the Rich Harvest Farms golf club, which has hosted many tournaments, including the Solheim Cup. Nor do I dislike Saudis. But I cannot in good conscience attend an LIV Golf event.
LIV Golf players and officials say the golf tour is simply providing a fresh alternative format to the PGA and European tour golf tournaments. They say its goal is to expand interest in professional golf to younger and more international audiences. And LIV Golf President Atul Khosla, a former Chicago Fire soccer executive, wants the tournament to be staged like rock concerts, complete with musical performances and other nongolf sideshows to attract a nontraditional fan base. Time will tell if that succeeds.
My own experiences with Saudi elites have been limited but telling. Four months after 9/11, I met with a prominent Saudi business owner named in a lawsuit brought by families of the victims. The suit alleged that he had provided financial support to the 9/11 plot through a bank he owned, and he was seeking high-level public relations counsel. But my colleagues and I couldn’t decline fast enough. After hours of trying to persuade us to represent him, the Saudi mogul went into a tirade about how Israel was really behind the 9/11 terrorism. More disturbing, he was not the only Saudi selling that conspiracy narrative.
Sure, Saudi Arabia has made some small measures of progress in human rights, such as allowing women to drive. The kingdom is even encouraging Saudi women to take up golf. But the country remains very distant behind democracies in advancing human rights and social justice for its citizens.
As someone whose long career has been in the public relations profession, I disagree with our former president’s implication that Saudi Arabia’s venture into professional golf will result in billions of dollars of favorable publicity. But Trump has never seemed to care whether publicity is good or bad, as long as your name is constantly in the headlines.
Jack Modzelewski is a Chicago-based business communications consultant and was a volunteer at the 2021 Ryder Cup international golf competition.
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