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Who really benefits from the PGA-LIV merger

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It was just a year ago, you might remember, the first LIV Golf event was held, sending shock waves through the game that shattered long-held structures, partnerships and relationships.

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

For over the past year, it was the PGA, the world's preeminent pro golf league, versus LIV, a Saudi Arabia-funded upstart. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent. There have been lawsuits and counter lawsuits, players leaving one league for the other.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You were LIV Golf or you were not.

DAVIS: But that may be changing. This week, the PGA joined forces with LIV Golf. The move would effectively combine the PGA's marketing power, TV contracts and cultural footprint with Saudi financing. And Saudi's public investment fund governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, would head their board of directors. The move has rocked the world of golf, where even players were kept in the dark, including PGA Tour winner Brendon Todd, speaking to Golf Today.

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BRENDON TODD: Yeah. I just happened to be on the shuttle ride back from the range and opened my email and saw the letter from the commissioner. Safe to say we're all pretty surprised out here.

DAVIS: While both organizations had a history of acrimony, The New Yorker's Zach Helfand told NPR the move makes sense.

ZACH HELFAND: The Saudis wanted a golf tour. They wanted power and prestige, and they had a lot of money. And the PGA Tour was always happy to take a lot of money, and they had a golf tour to offer and they had power and prestige to offer. So each side really had what the other wanted.

DAVIS: Indeed, PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan looked very cordial together speaking on CNBC. Here's Monahan.

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JAY MONAHAN: You know, there's been a lot of tension in our sport over the last couple years, but what we're talking about today is coming together to unify the game of golf and to do so under one umbrella.

TERRY STRADA: Golf would be better off without them.

DAVIS: Terry Strada is one of the deal's strongest critics. She chairs the group 9/11 Families United, which represents thousands of surviving family members of those killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks. Many of those family members are still engaged in long-running litigation to hold the Saudi government responsible for the attacks.

STRADA: We are outraged that they are coming now to America, pouring billions of dollars into one of our time-honored, loved sports of golf, all in an effort to get the American people in the world to forget about how they used to spend their billions of dollars.

DAVIS: While the U.S. government concluded that there was no evidence directly linking the Saudi government to 9/11, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and Osama bin Laden was a member of one of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest families. Strada calls the deal a blatant attempt at sportswashing by the Saudis.

STRADA: It's outrageous that they now can just try cleansing their past, cleansing the blood off of their hands.

DAVIS: Though the PGA-LIV merger has yet to be finalized, it's already faced backlash from players who remain loyal to the tour and from human rights activists who see this as an attempt by the Saudis to use sports to draw attention away from their record of human rights abuses. Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. This week, she wrote a rather scathing takedown of the potential PGA-LIV merger. We brought her into the studio to assess the deal for us, and I started by asking her if she saw the deal coming.

SALLY JENKINS: Nobody did, including the PGA Tour players. It's - it came together very, very quickly over about seven weeks in total, utter secrecy, which is one of the things that I think is making me very suspicious about the legitimacy of this deal.

DAVIS: Ultimately, it seems that money did drive the decision here. Your column that you wrote this week alleges as much as you just alluded to. Surely, there's a lot of criticism about Saudi Arabia's human rights records, but do you think that this deal will ultimately hurt the image of the PGA?

JENKINS: I think they're going to take a tremendous reputational hit. That's already happened. You know, Congress is none too happy. I don't think the Department of Justice is going to be very happy. But I think the main point is that the PGA Tour players are not happy. It's apparently running about 90% against. They are absolutely livid that the commissioner kept them in the dark and conducted secret negotiations. And the deal, frankly, is very, very vague at this point. And it appears that three PGA Tour officials, members of the board of policy, may be getting some huge financial rewards out of this. You know, so, yes, the Saudis have a lot of money, but who is that money really going to be benefiting?

DAVIS: Do the players here have much power? I - you say they're angry, but is there much in their capability to do anything to stop it or prevent it from happening?

JENKINS: They can do some things to stop it and prevent it from happening. They can start by demanding full disclosures about what the policy board members are getting out of this. What is commissioner Jay Monahan's new compensation deal by giving so much control to a single Saudi financier, Al-Rumayyan? He is going to sit as the chair of the board of this new entity if this thing comes off. Why would the PGA Tour cede so much control to a single Saudi financier that they have been fighting with so vehemently for so many months? What happened?

DAVIS: One of those PGA players, Rory McIlroy - he had been critical of players who had left and taken money from LIV. He said there should be consequences for players who left the PGA. But this is what he said after the deal was announced.

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RORY MCILROY: Whether you like it or not, the PIF are going to keep spending money in golf. At least the PGA Tour now controls how that money is spent. You know, so I'd - you know, if you're thinking about, you know, one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the world, would you rather have them as a partner or an enemy? At the end of the day, money talks, and you'd rather have them as a partner.

DAVIS: The PIF is, of course, referring to Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund. Your reaction to McIlroy's comments?

JENKINS: I think he hasn't closely examined the terms of this deal, and I think that this is what he's being pitched by Jay Monahan, who's trying to mollify him. But if you examine just the little bit that the PGA has released so far, you find out that the PGA is not in control of the funds. The funds will be overseen by the Saudis. They will be sitting as chairman of the board of this new entity, and not only that, but as chairman of a very, very small executive committee. So it's not clear at all that this is a partnership as opposed to having simply sold golf to the Saudi investment fund.

DAVIS: A deal like this would have been unthinkable back in 2018, when the Western world was recoiling following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. U.S. intelligence concluded that murder was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But the Saudis have since spent hundreds of millions of dollars in sports. It's this term called sportswashing, essentially trying to rehabilitate the nation's image. Is it working?

JENKINS: It is working to a certain extent. The problem is that this deal goes so much farther than any of the other sportswashing deals. This cedes an entire international global sport to one Saudi financier who is the direct financial arm of bin Salman, a murderer and a torturer and a despot.

DAVIS: Do you think it's possible that this sets a precedent for other nations that might want to also attempt sportswashing to rehabilitate their images? Is this providing a path for them to do that?

JENKINS: Well, Russia certainly has been sportswashing like crazy, attempting to, you know, rinse out the foul taste of what Putin's been doing. You know, that's one reason why they've invested so heavily in sports. I will remark on something. You know, American money fled Russia after they attacked Ukraine, so I would - there's a real danger here. This deal is only coming off because there is a very, very small group of power brokers who stand to profit a great deal off this deal with the PGA. I'm not sure this deal gets done in any other league structure.

The PGA Tour structure probably ought to be seriously examined by the players. You may see a move towards unionization by the players because the fact that this could happen in such secrecy and be carried off by three men - Jay Monahan, Ed Herlihy and Jimmy Dunne, all of whom stand to profit hugely from this - that's actually a very unusual setup within sports. Very few athletes are so lacking in power and would be held in such disregard by their supposed governing bodies.

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DAVIS: That was Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Her new book is "The Right Call: What Sports Teach Us About Work And Life."

While many people see LIV as a disruptor for the sport, Doug Greenberg, a writer for the sports news site Front Office Sports, says the Saudi-backed league has actually been good for golf.

DOUG GREENBERG: It's really gotten people talking about the sport, you know, especially at the pro level. But I think it's also gotten people interested in the recreational level as well. So that's part of it - just really increasing visibility for the game.

DAVIS: Greenberg says player compensation has also improved on the PGA Tour since LIV vied for players to join their league.

GREENBERG: It kind of forced the PGA Tour's hand and made them start paying the top players more as well.

DAVIS: Greenberg acknowledges outrage over Saudi's human rights record, but with a financial arm with hundreds of billions of dollars in assets, ultimately, the deal came down to, as it often does, money.

GREENBERG: I think that's why a lot of people are upset with the top levels of the PGA Tour right now because - and especially Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the tour - because, for months, he had been, you know, playing the moral angle and had been saying, you know, you can't be accepting Saudi Arabian blood money - like, shame on all the players who jumped to LIV because of them taking that money. And then, you know, in the end, it sounds like he ended up taking the money.

DAVIS: Still, Greenberg stressed the deal isn't a guarantee.

GREENBERG: U.S. regulators - you know, U.S. lawmakers are really, really not happy about this, especially with this idea of letting Saudi money into American pro sports, which is really the first time that that's happened. So the immediate reality is that this might not even happen.

DAVIS: That was writer Doug Greenberg of Fresh Off Sports (ph). NPR reached out to the PGA for comment on the criticisms of the deal with LIV Golf. They directed us to an interview commissioner Jay Monahan gave to the Golf Channel last week. In that interview, he said the following.

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MONAHAN: As we sit here today, you know, I think it's important to - you know, to reiterate that I feel like the move that we've made and how we move forward is in the best interest of our sport.

DAVIS: Monahan also says he regrets not communicating better with stakeholders in the deal, including the families of the 9/11 victims.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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