The actual extent of a huckster’s toxicity is seldom obvious in the cost to his reputation—he has little to defend by definition—but rather in how readily he jeopardizes the honor of anybody who connects with him. After two years of speculation and hearsay, we’re about to find out who among the world’s top golfers is willing to sacrifice his reputation on Greg Norman’s amoral altar.
Let’s assume Norman waited three days after Saudi Arabia executed 81 men for crimes like “deviant beliefs” before announcing the schedule for the LIV Golf Invitational, a tournament series financed by the same regime solely for the purpose of sportswashing things like summary mass executions at home and war crimes abroad.
Norman continued to demonstrate himself to be a craven apologist for abusers in many media interviews, many of which bordered on ego-stroking panegyrics.
He told Gary Williams, who was one of the few people who pressed the great white pilot fish on human rights problems during his 5 Clubs podcast, “I’m not entering into this political discourse.” “I’m concentrating on what I’m doing and improving the game of golf… I’m not even going to try to engage in a political debate about it.”
Consider a housekeeper cleaning a hotel room that looks like a butcher with no regard for how it got there. Norman may believe that rolling heads in Riyadh’s squares or a consulate in Istanbul are below his pay grade, but the stain of his participation is undeniable and irreversible. He’d like to see other notable players take on the same role.
The inaugural event of the LIV Golf Invitational (decide for yourself if the name is a Roman number reference to its 54-hole layouts or a ghastly joke about what the regime doesn’t allow critics to do) will take place in London from June 9-11. The second event is set for July 1-3 at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, whose members were smacked with a dues hike and word that they’d been conscripted into a sportswashing exercise at the same time.
Members of the PGA Tour are required by policy to get authorization to compete in events hosted by other tours. Releases are commonly granted to persons who want to bring a lot of cash home from Asia, Europe, or the Middle East, but there are some limits. The PGA Tour has never granted a waiver to allow members to compete in a tournament held in the United States against their own schedule, and there’s no reason to believe that policy will change for Norman’s bonesaw invitationals.
The refusal of exemptions may result in litigation that was always going to happen. The action might be brought under antitrust law on two fronts: whether the PGA Tour is creating unreasonable hurdles to prevent a competitor from entering the market, and whether the Tour can restrict independent contractors (players) from working for a competitor.
When it comes to antitrust, public rhetoric is crucial. This is why Norman’s letter to players on March 15 announcing the series and inviting them to participate was most likely not written by Norman. Last month, he sent Monahan an inebriated rant that revealed a level of intelligence that could have been scribbled in crayon. LIV Golf will complement the existing environment while providing fans with a better product, according to this letter. It’s important noting the phrase.
Antitrust legislation is based on the consumer’s best interests, with three pillars: more choices, higher quality, and cheaper costs. It’s tempting to laugh at the letter’s description of the Saudi effort as a “start-up,” as if it’s a scrappy business seeking a traditional return on investment, but the framing is meant to portray a young outfit being stymied by Monahan’s monolith.
Given that LIV Golf anticipates fewer events, fewer players, fewer holes, and less viewing chances, it’s dubious whether it can claim to provide consumers with a superior product. Even if the PGA Tour is found guilty of antitrust laws, the Saudis would have to show that harm was sustained, which is a difficult assignment in the past.
The USFL sued the NFL in the 1980s, alleging antitrust breaches similar to what LIV Golf would argue against the PGA Tour. The USFL prevailed, but only received $1 in damages. The USFL had already folded by the time the NFL cut a check. The jury decided that the USFL’s terrible mismanagement contributed largely to its own downfall, which is why the compensation was so little. To defend the Saudi project’s artless bungling over the years, inventive counsel would be required. Norman should educate himself with King Pyrrhus’ ‘victory’ in the Battle of Asculum.
Naturally, the public’s attention will be drawn to which players will volunteer to be the face(s) of a Saudi-funded lawsuit challenging their right to play wherever they want. That, too, will be lengthy and complicated. Monahan isn’t telling Tour members they can’t play for the Saudis; he’s telling them they can’t play for the Saudis while also competing on the PGA Tour. He’ll need “pro-competitive reasoning” to constrain independent contractors in order to do so. And there’s a case to be made for it.
The PGA Tour’s legal team could argue that it needs to protect its brand by avoiding confusion about who plays on which circuit, or that it needs to protect its investments in players—their skills, their health, and the potential stress of competing on multiple circuits—in order to best deliver its product, which is competitive golf at the highest level. In other words, the PGA Tour’s capacity to continue offering a product that consumers recognize as their own depends on players’ alignment. Those are valid legal positions to adopt, albeit ones that the Tour has misrepresented, allowing a story to emerge about threats of lifelong bans, which further adds fuel to Saudi charges of unfair hurdles.
There are office towers full of lawyers salivating at the billable years ahead, as hesitant as players must be to become the public faces of a Saudi hijacking of professional golf. As Phil Mickelson can attest, any golfer who stands up to demand the opportunity to play for both the Saudis and the PGA Tour will face a long and lonely path as public opinion, sponsors, and colleagues turn against them. The sentimental cliché that how PGA Tour golfers play the game shows their ethics is regularly peddled by them. There’s a glimmer of truth in it. However, it is no less a testament to a man’s character for whom he plays the game in this particular period.
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