No Going Back
This was the one thing the PGA Tour couldn’t afford to get wrong
The movie “The Program,” about Lance Armstrong’s secretive use of performance enhancing drugs, does not include any golf. That Armstrong is a golfer is only a coincidence. So is the fact that I stumbled on the film at the end of a bewildering day last Wednesday, when I was still processing the bombshell announcement of a new deal between the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
So how the film relates to the golf dynamic before us today requires some explanation. Very briefly, “The Program” chronicles Armstrong’s incredible efforts, first in overcoming testicular cancer, then in winning seven Tour de Frances, and ultimately in covering up the dishonest recipe behind his success. There is a scene midway through that feels applicable now. Armstrong had just won his first Tour, and had emerged as an inspiration to millions of cancer survivors. He is at a signing for his memoir It’s Not About The Bike, when a woman approaches his table to share Armstrong’s influence in her own recovery. He was the reason she persisted, she tells him. Armstrong’s pained smile, as portrayed by the actor Ben Foster, is telling.
So how does this apply to the PGA Tour and its deal with the Saudis? It’s because in both instances, the deception extends beyond the standard issue misdirection and hypocrisy that permeates through sports. To accept that people in sports and business regularly mislead might sound like a cynical outlook, but it still accounts for the rather naive expectation that some lines are not meant to be crossed.
Just as an athlete who serves as a beacon to millions of cancer survivors can’t deceive people in their most vulnerable state, a golf executive cannot invoke a moral reason not to do business, then shrug his shoulders on TV later as if to say, Never mind.
Lance Armstrong coming clean in his interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Whatever the extent of PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan’s role in forging a new partnership with the Saudis, his biggest mistake was still made months earlier. To some, Monahan sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the PIF’s Yasir Al-Rumayyan on CNBC last week confirmed he failed to do the right thing. But really it underscored the folly in suggesting he ever would.
On separate occasions in fending off the Saudi challenge, Monahan referenced the regime’s nefarious human rights history, and the country’s ties to organizing and executing the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In doing so, Monahan also suggested the tour held itself to a higher moral standard.
“On the PGA Tour, our members compete for the opportunity to add their names to history books, and, yes, significant financial benefits, without having to wrestle with any sort of moral ambiguity,” he said last June.
Later, on a TV interview with Jim Nantz, Monahan elaborated.
“As it relates to the families of 9/11, I have two families that are close to me that lost loved ones. And so my heart goes out to them,” Monahan said. “I would ask any player that has left or any player that would ever consider leaving, ‘Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?’”
The point isn’t that Monahan was lying then—I don’t believe he was. His error, rather, was signing a contract he, or any sports executive, was ill-prepared to fulfill. Whereas Armstrong knowingly misled, Monahan, like the cyclist, played too recklessly with something that resonated too deep. People are permitted to change what they think. But the moment you seek to tap into how anyone should feel, the rules of engagement change.
It’s worth noting that of the players who defected to LIV Golf, the player most transparent about his reasoning was the one who also escaped the harshest criticism. Harold Varner III didn’t talk about growing the game, or golf helping to enact change in the Middle East. Varner said he was going for the money. Maybe you disapproved, but you stopped short of calling him a fraud.
We are still in the early stages of understanding the consequences of the tour’s partnership with the Saudi government. I’ve heard worthy arguments on both sides—one that lays out the myriad troubling reasons the Saudi regime should be kept at a distance; the other that says it’s already infiltrated the Western economy enough, it’s foolish to even try.
What is apparent now that it’s a reality is Monahan never should have discounted it as a possibility, nor should he have tread such vulnerable terrain if there was even a remote chance he’d reverse course.
As Senator Chris Murphy noted on Twitter, “So weird. PGA officials were in my office just months ago talking about how the Saudis' human rights record should disqualify them from having a stake in a major American sport. I guess maybe their concerns weren't really about human rights?”
This last part goes back to why Lance Armstrong paid a higher price for his doping scandal than other athletes exposed as cheaters. The baseball players Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds might have fooled people who relied on their eyes and ears. Armstrong’s crime, selling the public on a cancer comeback fueled by natural will, was a deception of the heart.
The main reason Monahan and the tour face such strong backlash now is because a conflict framed as transcending money now can only point to money as a solution. People say a lot in the heat of an argument, but certain things you say once, you're not allowed to walk back.