MAJOR League Baseball (MLB) was once so concerned about gambling it banned Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays just for working as casino greeters. Now MLB itself and almost all of its teams have official casino sponsors.
The NCAA railed for decades that paying players would destroy college sports, all while raking in billions off of their unpaid labor. Now schools boast of booster collectives that help recruit top talent to their teams.
So when the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Tour overcame its indignation and agreed to merge with LIV Golf—despite the human rights abuses of its Saudi Arabian backers—the flip-flop followed a long-established tradition in sports of flexible attitudes that often hurtle into full-blown hypocrisy.
“Phil Mickelson initially said, ‘Oh, my God. It’s frightening some of the things have occurred.’ But for the right amount of money, he decided he’s going to join the LIV Tour. And this does seem to be much the same thing,” said Matthew Mitten, a sports law professor at Marquette University. “Sports are an outlet for people. The question is: How far will we go?”
As the top pro circuit in the world, the PGA Tour attracted the best golfers and all that came with them: bankable TV deals, luxury goods sponsorships and the attention of fans who want to see the most skilled athletes playing for the most prestigious prizes. That was all threatened when LIV Golf – backed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund — began offering nine-figure sums to lure stars like Mickelson and Dustin Johnson to a new tour that featured team play and 54-hole events.
To fend off the challenge, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan harped on the source of the money, telling his players last year, “Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?”
The answer, as of Tuesday, is yes.
“I recognize that people are going to call me a hypocrite,” Monahan told reporters after getting an earful from players who had just learned they were about to be partners with the regime they had been denouncing. “I accept those criticisms. But circumstances do change.”
What changed for Monahan, like so many other sports pooh-bahs before him, was the opportunity to wet the tour’s beak in Saudi billions.
What didn’t change: It was never about anything else.
“One defense to going for the money is that sports shouldn’t be about politics. But the leagues can’t have it both ways,” said Jodi Balsam, who teaches sports law at Brooklyn and NYU law schools.
“It shows a certain amount of inconsistency, and perhaps even hypocrisy,” said Balsam, who noted that baseball moved its 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to a Georgia voting law but continues to do business in other, more troublesome places, including China. “None of their decision-making that supposedly is responsive to the ideological environment is actually principled. It’s all pandering.”
Not lost among the ironies: LIV was suing the PGA Tour, accusing it of using its monopoly to crush potential competitors. On Tuesday, LIV had an epiphany about the need for competition and combined with the PGA Tour in what Balsam called “a golf monolith” that will control players and every other aspect of tournament play, from sponsors to players to fans.
“There’s nowhere else to play,” she said. “This will create a colossus that will be able to dictate the terms of how they do business with all their relationships upstream and downstream. A golf monarchy is going to have significant control over how we enjoy the game.”
And golf isn’t the only sport playing it both ways.
— The women’s professional tennis tour pulled out of China two years ago over concerns about Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai, who dropped out of public view after saying in a social media post that a high-ranking government official raped her. The tour announced in April it would return this season with at least six events in China—backing off two of its key demands: a chance to meet with Peng, and a thorough, transparent investigation of her sexual assault accusations.
— Other leagues have also stumbled as they tried to balance China’s 1 billion-strong market with its human rights violations, among them the suppression of religious rights and democratic movements. Nor have Chinese abuses scared off the Olympics, which returned to Beijing for a second time last year amid claims that the treatment of the Uyghur ethnic minority amounts to genocide.
— The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has likewise struggled to look serious in dealing with Russia—first for a years-long doping scheme, and then for its invasion of Ukraine. The decided upon measure: Let some athletes participate, but ban the flag and anthem.
–The most recent World Cup was held in Qatar, which has little soccer tradition and a record of human rights abuses it hoped to cleanse with what has come to be known as “sportswashing”—using major sporting events to distract the international community from its more unsavory behaviors. (What the World Cup did for Qatar and the 2022 Olympics did for China, LIV Golf was supposed to do for Saudi Arabia.)
— Contact sports face a different dilemma: With increasing data about the dangers of concussions, leagues have to balance the violence that can be a draw for fans with the risk to their players’ brains. “There is no higher priority than player safety,” National Foortball League Commissioner Roger Goodell said—before the league added a 17th game to the schedule and ramped up the Thursday night schedule that forces players back onto the field on short rest.
“I am leery of all companies that take strong moral stands,” said Marc Isenberg, an athlete advocate and former Division III basketball player who has written about college sports and its ills and teaches a course at the University of Southern California on athletes’ newfound right to earn money off of their name, image and likeness. “And (I) try not to be shocked when they’re exposed as amoral profit-maximizers.”
Isenberg works with players to fend off unscrupulous agents and other predatory business arrangements. But the problem is sometimes the NCAA itself, which spent a century portraying its players as “student-athletes” to keep them from marketing their skills like any painter in the art school or flutist in the band.
Despite its protests, college sports have thrived since a (unanimous) US Supreme Court ruling that struck down some of the more stifling NCAA restrictions. Another Supreme Court decision allowed all states to legalize sports betting; it turns out, with the riches of “gaming” sponsorships and a new way to attract viewers, US pro leagues came around on this one-time taboo, with the NFL and National Hockey League even putting teams in Las Vegas.
The Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland-Las Vegas Raiders’ move to the gambling capital of the United States—if not the worl typifies what is one of the most frustrating forms of sports hypocrisy to fans: Their favorite teams gush with love for their hometown, until a ballpark or arena begins to show some wear.
Other cities are trotted out as suitors until, ideally, the state or local government subsidizes a new stadium.
If not, someone else will.
Baseball’s Oakland Athletics are working both sides even now, less than a decade after Commissioner Rob Manfred said: “I am committed to Oakland as a major league site.”
“I think that if we were to leave Oakland, I think 10 years from now we would be more likely than not looking backwards saying we made a mistake,” he said in 2016.
But since then, A’s owner John Fisher has stripped the roster; the payroll of under $58 million is the lowest in baseball. With the team’s future in flux, neither ownership nor the local governments have been willing to invest in the crumbling Oakland Coliseum, which has been beset by feral cat feces, moth infestations and backups of raw sewage.
Through Monday, the team had a record of 12-50, which puts them on a pace for a modern day record-shattering 131 losses—the most since the Cleveland Spiders were disbanded in 1899. Fans have responded in kind: Only 8,675 on average have come to see the team that put down roots in Oakland more than a half-century ago.
And many fans believe that is the point: The worse the ballpark looks and the lower attendance drops, the better Fisher’s case for a new home. In April, he signed a deal—with Manfred’s blessing—to move the team.
To Las Vegas.
Image credits: AP