As top PGA players bolt for new league, questions of sportswashing arise. What does it mean?

It might be a relatively new term, but sportwashing has been around a long time

General view on the 18th green ahead of the LIV Golf Invitational at The Centurion Club on June 08, 2022 in St Albans, England. (Photo by John Phillips/LIV Golf/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Have you ever heard of sportswashing?

It’s been hard NOT to hear chatter about that term in recent weeks.

The launch of a new professional Saudi-backed golf league, the LIV, has swiped top players from the PGA Tour, bringing the term more to light.

So just what is ‘sportswashing’?

We’ve got you covered with the fast facts, in case it comes up at your next dinner party or water cooler conversation.

What is sportswashing?

By definition, sportswashing is a practice where a controversial country, company or individual uses sponsoring sports as a way to improve a reputation.

Why has it been talked about lately?

The term has been thrown around a lot because of what people perceive is taking place with the new LIV golf league.

For those unfamiliar, the LIV golf league is a new golf league that started up this past weekend, with its purpose to be a competitor for the PGA Tour.

There are different rules, such as 54-hole tournaments (the league’s named after the roman numeral of 54), shotgun starts, no player cuts after 36 holes, and team formats.

Through huge-money offers, some of which are reportedly $100 million or more, the league has lured PGA Tour regulars and major tournament winners such as Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Patrick Reed away from the PGA Tour.

Where the controversy comes in is that the league is backed by the estimated $600 billion Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, which reportedly has committed numerous human-rights violations.

Critics of the players who have defected have essentially accused the players of “selling out” for big cash and not taking into account the human-rights history of the Saudis.

Those critics feel the new league is just a sportswashing ploy by the Saudis to soften their reputation.

The Saudi government has also invested in sports organizations such as the English Premier League (soccer) and the WWE.

On the other side, those who are more sympathetic to the players feel as if they are simply doing what’s best for their families and that their decisions are basic capitalism.

Has sportswashing been a common practice in history?


In particular, the Olympics have proven to be an occasion for numerous countries to attempt to present themselves in a different light and divert accusations.

Whether it was Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany in 1936, Russia in 2014 or China and its controversial human-rights reputation earlier this year, sportswashing and the Olympics have often gone hand in hand.

Later this year, Qatar will be hosting soccer’s World Cup, which it was awarded in 2010 and has maintained despite admissions from organizers that the country exploited migrant workers.

This will be on the heels of a 2018 World Cup in Russia that was surrounded in a cloud of human rights accusations against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

No doubt, sports at its best is a way to enhance physical and mental health, teach life lessons, and be an inspiration for fans who need a diversion.

But as the controversy surrounding the new LIV golf league has shown, sportswashing has, and always will be, as much a part of sports as balls, fields, yards and courts.

About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.