American Values Were Never the Issue

Conservatives blasted the NBA for giving in to China. But no such outrage greets the golfers playing in an upcoming Saudi tournament.

Phil Mickelson
Christopher Hanewinckel / USA TODAY Sports / Reuters

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

Recently, the National Basketball Association faced a torrent of criticism from several notable Republicans, including President Donald Trump, for supposedly prioritizing its business relationship with China—a repressive foreign dictatorship—over free speech and other American values.

But strangely, that kind of outrage hasn’t been directed at the professional golfers, including the superstar Phil Mickelson, who plan to play at an event next month in another repressive country: Saudi Arabia.

After the Houston Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted his support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong in October, the NBA found itself in an uncomfortable dilemma in China, the league’s second-most-important market. Commissioner Adam Silver said the Chinese government had pressured him to get Morey fired. While Silver never acquiesced, Senator Marco Rubio said it was “disgusting” to see the NBA being strong-armed by China. Rubio’s fellow Florida Republican, Senator Rick Scott, tweeted that the NBA “is more interested in money than human rights.” Trump mocked two of the league’s top coaches for “pandering to China” and being “so scared” of Beijing’s wrath.

Such indignation was conspicuously lacking—at least among conservative politicians—when Mickelson and other PGA Tour stars announced that they will play next month in the Saudi International tournament, a lucrative event on the European Tour. The host country, like China, has an abysmal record on human rights. According to Amnesty International, the kingdom executed 110 people in 2019 alone for various levels of political dissent. But, like many of the NBA’s critics from a couple of months ago, Trump has been silent about the participation of Michelson and other American golfers.

In fairness, some in the media have chided Mickelson, because he’s arguably the biggest name in the tournament field. But those criticisms have been mild compared with the vitriol directed at LeBron James, after the Los Angeles Lakers forward called Morey “misinformed” for cheering the Hong Kong protesters’ fight for independence and democracy. James was called a “coward” and an “embarrassment,” and Hong Kong protesters burned his jersey.

James’s comments were cringe-worthy. Yet his tone was not nearly as unapologetic, politically apathetic, or insulting as the statements made by some of the golfers playing in Saudi Arabia in January.

During an exchange on Twitter with a user who questioned him for playing in Saudi Arabia, Mickelson replied, “I understand those who are upset or disappointed. You’ll be ok. I’m excited to experience this for the first time.” When Ewan Murray, the golf correspondent for The Guardian, challenged his decision to play in the Saudi tournament, Mickelson dismissed the criticism with a line he attributed to the comedian Kevin Hart: “You do you booboo, cuz ima do me.”

It was a tone-deaf way to address a serious situation. Mickelson also has tried to rationalize playing in Saudi Arabia by calling it an opportunity to “grow the game” of golf. But it looks more like an opportunity for Mickelson to grow his bank account. In part because of the negative social and political implications, Tiger Woods twice turned down offers of about $3 million just to appear in the Saudi tournament, ESPN has reported. Imagine what Mickelson must be getting paid to attend. Woods is not known for taking political stands, so the fact that he even considered it troublesome to play in Saudi Arabia speaks volumes.

Last January, several of the world’s top golfers played in the Saudi event just a few months after the Washington Post contributing journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. The United Nations later determined that Khashoggi, an extremely vocal critic of the Saudi regime, was “the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible.”

The Saudi monarchy’s involvement in the killing left the pro golfer Dustin Johnson unfazed. “Obviously, that was a concern with our team. I’m going over there to play a sport I’m paid to play. It’s my job to play golf,” he told reporters before appearing in the event last year. Referring to Khashoggi’s death, he continued, “Unfortunately, it’s in a part of the world where most people don’t agree with what happened, and I definitely don’t support anything like that. I’m going to play golf, not support them. I’m not a politician. I play golf.”

Had James or any other NBA player embraced money over moral responsibility as boldly as Johnson or Mickelson did, the castigation would have been severe and unrelenting.

But the relative silence greeting these pro golfers’ decision to play in Saudi Arabia only proves just how fake and disingenuous the outrage directed at the NBA actually was.

The China controversy was just a convenient tool used to taunt the NBA because several of the league’s biggest stars have excoriated Trump and been outspoken about the social injustices that African Americans suffer all the time. When the president chimed in, he made sure to belittle NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, because both have used their high public profiles to disparage the president on several occasions. China’s move against the Rockets gave Trump license to retaliate against his own critics.

The real issue for Trump and other Republicans isn’t that the NBA gave in to China—especially because these politicians don’t seem to criticize other American businesses that do the same. Their problem is that prominent sports figures have dared to exercise their right to free speech at home.

Because there are no political points to be gained, the professional golfers who will play in Saudi Arabia next month don’t have to worry about their integrity or patriotism being questioned. They can just shut up and play golf.