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Senate hearing aimed to shed light on the planned PGA Tour-LIV Golf deal


It was a blockbuster hearing on Capitol Hill today, one that was at capacity even after lawmakers moved it to a larger room. And it was all over golf, specifically the proposed merger between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, an upstart golf tour funded by Saudia Arabia's public investment fund. At today's hearing, PGA executives said they had no choice but to engage with the Saudis as Saudi Arabia seeks to become a global player in the game. Critics think the deal will enable the country to distract the world from a dismal human rights record. One of those critics is the senator who called today's hearing. Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut chairs the senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations. He joins me now. Welcome, senator.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Thanks so much for having me.

FLORIDO: Senator, what were you hoping to learn in today's hearing? And did you get what you were after?

BLUMENTHAL: What I was hoping to learn is what the motivation was for this complete reversal betraying the values and supporters that the PGA Tour itself espoused in criticizing LIV Golf, owned by the Saudis, and why they, in effect, surrendered to the Saudi-owned wealth fund that is taking over the PGA Tour. And the hearing was about more than just the game of golf. It's about how a brutal, repressive regime can buy influence, indeed assume control over a cherished American institution simply to cleanse its public image. It is called sportswashing. And this regime has killed journalists, jailed and tortured dissidents, fostered the war in Yemen and supported other terrorist activity, including 9/11. So what we've learned is that the PGA Tour felt it had no options but, in fact, had a lot of choices other than just simply surrender.

FLORIDO: I want to play a little bit of what PGA Tour chief operating officer Ron Price said today.


RON PRICE: Instead of losing control of the PGA Tour, we pursued a peace that would not only end the divisive litigation battles but would also maintain the PGA Tour's structure, mission and longstanding support for charity.

FLORIDO: He said today that the tentative agreement that the PGA has reached with the Saudi-backed LIV tour includes safeguards to protect the PGA from undue influence and that the PGA will retain control over the body's decision-making. Was that reassuring to you at all?

BLUMENTHAL: Not at all. It really has no safeguards. The Saudis are going to be the owners. They are the principal investors. They can veto any other endorsement of capital. And now the PGA Tour in effect is at the mercy of a repressive, autocratic monarchy that controls the purse strings. So far from being reassured, what my takeaway was - that money determined this outcome. And money, again, can cause the PGA Tour to, for example, silence its athletes, potentially force them to avoid disparaging the Saudis. There's a non-disparagement clause already in this agreement. And the Saudis have a record of repression and silencing human rights.

FLORIDO: Your Republican colleague Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has said that Congress should play a very limited role, if any at all, in this deal, in part because if Saudi Arabia does not invest in the PGA Tour, it might invest someplace else. Listen to what he told NPR's Morning Edition today.

RON JOHNSON: I'd rather have the Saudis invest their oil wealth in America as opposed to adversaries like Russia or China.

FLORIDO: Does Senator Johnson have a point?

BLUMENTHAL: No. I respectfully disagree. And I think that that quote may have been taken a little bit out of context because my hope is that my colleagues will join in feeling that sports are central to our culture and society. Let the Saudis invest in Russia - not a great bet investing in Russia these days. But the investment in the United States would enable them to take over an iconic sports institution, pose a real danger to our way of life and our image at home and abroad. And sports are central to our culture with huge implications to local economies and communities. So there's a real national interest in preventing investments by authoritarian governments with deep pockets that could endanger vital institutions. And I think that most of my Senate colleagues would agree.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut and chair of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Thanks for your time.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.