GAA Football

Kicking Out: Sport stars not half as powerless as they like to let on

Dustin Johnson, (left) and Graeme McDowell during a press conference at the Centurion Club, Hertfordshire ahead of the LIV Golf Invitational Series. The players who have signed up to the series are being paid huge amounts from Saudi coffers but have come in for massive criticism due to the country’s human rights record. Picture by PA

PEERING into the world of sport looking for your spiritual guidance wouldn’t have been the best use of your time for quite a while now, but it was a particular waste this week.

Strung out along the top table, some of the world’s top golfers sat brass-necked in front of the world’s media and tried to defend taking the Saudi money.

The new Liv Golf tournament will see the Saudi Public Investment Fund invest $2billion in the sport over the next few years.

Much of it will be invested straight into the pockets of Graeme McDowell and the lads.

When asked back in February if he’d consider taking the Saudis’ money, Phil Mickelson called them “scary m*****f******s”, adding that “we know they killed [journalist Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it?”

Then he saw how big the stack was and he not only considered it, but he jumped in feet first, just as GMac and Dustin Johnston and Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia and the rest did.

What they said to the world was that we’re opposed to the murder of journalists and human rights abuses and the gay-bashing and the execution of 81 men in one day, but give us enough money and we’ll brush it off and tell the world we’re “proud to help them [the Saudis]”, in the words of GMac.

Golf is just the sport beneath the microscope now but the Saudis are already knee-deep in a range of sports.

They have a $600m deal with Formula One and barely six months ago threw $400m in to buy a controlling stake in Newcastle FC.

Lewis Hamilton told of receiving letters from the family of Abdullah al-Howaiti, who was 14 years old when he was arrested and 17 when he was first sentenced to death.

Lawyers argued that interrogators coerced false confessions from al-Howaiti and five other defendants through torture or the threat of it.

His death sentence was thrown out by the Supreme Court, who ordered a retrial. That retrial finished in March, where he was sentenced to death for a second time.

Lewis Hamilton went on ahead and raced in Saudi Arabia, no different from any of the F1 field.

He spoke publically about the “need to see more” but that “it was not [the drivers’] responsibility” to bring about change on human rights issues.

But words are just words. The world of big money has become particularly well-versed in Boris Behaviour, where you shout from the rooftops that you’re taking accountability for your actions and then just plough on as you were, taking absolutely no accountability for your actions.

Sports stars are not half as powerless as they make themselves out to be.

A boycott by the drivers would have quickly pulled the plug on Saudi investment into Formula 1.

The Newcastle United players refusing to play or train would have had the investors quickly backing their jeeps out the gates of St James’ Park again.

The golfers that were in London rather than California at the weekend have an enormous role to play in society.

Every step deeper that sport wades into bad money, it becomes ever more difficult to turn back.

The Premier League is dead now. Plenty of people knew the suspected origins of Roman Abramovich’s fortune for a long, long time before Russia invaded Ukraine and forced him to sell up at Chelsea but English football sat on its hands.

So it’s hard to look at Eddie Howe and ask him what he’s doing to solve a problem different but the same two decades later.

None of the F1 drivers signed the deal to take a Grand Prix to Saudi Arabia. They’re just the public vessel carrying out the duties designated from above. It’s easy to be critical and hard to be all at the same time.

But it’s never an overnight thing.

Sport worldwide has gradually slipped into an abyss, from footballers diving to athletes doping and everything in between.

Some of the big sports have just let go altogether now, letting whoever and whatever invest and run the show, with no thought of the social consequences, let alone the financial ones for supporters who pay ever-increasing ticket prices, not so much to pay back the investment as to offer avenues to keep the Financial Fair Play investigators at bay.

It’s such a gradual erosion that by the time the avalanche happens, resistance has long been eroded.

In that sense we’re very lucky that while the GAA is much more conscious of the financial world now, it took a long time to move beyond a dipped toe and it’s still barely a foot in the pool.

We do have big investors putting serious money behind teams but they’re still predominantly our own and relatively scandal-free.

The GAA did allow the banks to move in quietly on the sponsorship patch after the financial crash in which they all played a part to varying degrees, but to its great credit has resisted gambling money and has rowed back on past relationships with alcohol companies.

There’s no sense that we’re on a bad path or even that we’re headed towards one, but at some point we have to know where the line is in terms of who we accept doing the background funding.

Our cultural erosions are very small-time in comparison. All we have is the horrible diving culture, the frustrating feigning of head injuries during a black card and the whistling at free-takers. There’s no Richter scale registering any of it, but the people in our world feel the tiny tremors of the slippage in our moral code.

But isn’t it great to look around at the bigger picture and think that for all our flaws, the GAA still has the stones to say no to the big bucks that, say, bookmakers would bring in return for silence in the face of the crippling effect gambling has on young men particularly.

You have to have your red lines and you have to stick to them.

The golfers that went to London painted all over their line at the weekend, and theirs will be a far worse sport for it.

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