Sports executives and players sometimes defended themselves or patiently absorbed hours of fury. They sometimes apologized or asked for help. They shifted blame or used celebrity and childhood memory as a charm offensive. On other occasions, they lied or obfuscated or simply said little.
PGA Tour leaders, who are expected to appear before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday to discuss their circuit’s surprising alliance with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, have a menu of time- and pressure-tested options to face a sports-curious Congress. The tactics they turn to will likely have a lot to do with whether Tuesday’s proceedings are a blip that leads to a day’s worth of headlines or a blip that prompts far greater scrutiny.
“The PGA would be smart to understand that they are not calling them to play patty,” said JC Watts, who played quarterback at Oklahoma before representing a district in the state in Congress and, from 1999 to 2003, served as a member of the Republican leadership in the House.
“The guys back home, they understand sports and they understand 9/11,” Watts added, referring to longstanding allegations that Saudi government agents played a role in the 2001 attacks. “This is a sport with a much deeper a twist than your typical hearing.”
That Congress, which has a long history of quizzing, hectoring and threatening when it comes to sports, would step into a golf fight felt like a certainty after the tour and the Saudi Arabian wealth fund announced a framework agreement on June 6. So far, that action has taken the form of two Senate investigations, a House bill to revoke the tour’s tax-exempt status, demands for the Justice Department and the Treasury Department to consider intervening and Tuesday’s hearing at the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate.
The proceeding is the latest example of congressional interest in sports that has led to a mixed record. Legislators and their investigators have unearthed information and sometimes brought about changes to the sports landscape, either through legislation or the grinding power of the congressional bully pulpit.
“I think you have to articulate your public policy purpose,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who was instrumental in hearings nearly two decades ago on steroid use in baseball that lawmakers have framed as part of a national scourge. . “That’s really what you have to do. It can be a healthy thing, a tax equality thing, but you have to articulate why Congress is involved, and it’s a high threshold.”
A sports hearing, Davis warned, was “high risk, high reward, especially at a time when Congress is not seen as productive.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who is the chairman of the subcommittee, said that the “central” role of sports in American society makes them especially important for Congress to examine. The proposed Saudi role in the gulf, he signaled, was too much for Congress to ignore.
“There’s really a national interest in this beloved, iconic American institution that’s about to be taken over by one of the world’s most repressive governments,” he said in an interview.
On Tuesday, the subcommittee will not hear from any of the three witnesses it originally sought. Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the PGA Tour, has been on medical leave for nearly a month, although the tour said Friday that he will return next week. Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of the wealth fund, and Greg Norman, the commissioner of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league, cited scheduling conflicts and declined to appear.
“Suffice to say, this hearing will certainly not be the last,” Blumenthal said. “We will have hearings after there is a final agreement, if appropriate, and it is in the national interest to do it.”
After the tour announced Monahan’s planned return, Blumenthal spokeswoman Maria McElwain said the subcommittee would “follow up with him on any remaining questions after Tuesday’s hearing.”
But the PGA Tour hopes to avoid testifying after Tuesday when Ron Price, its chief operating officer, appears. Although Price did not negotiate the deal announced last month, the travel board member who initiated the talks, James J. Dunne III, is also awaiting testimony.
Price and Dunne may also be asked about Randall Stephenson’s weekend resignation from the tour’s board after more than a decade. In his resignation letter, Stephenson, the former AT&T chief executive, cited “serious concerns about how this framework agreement was implemented without board oversight.” He added that the deal was not one he could “in good conscience support,” especially since U.S. intelligence officials concluded that the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia authorized the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“If you’re not really nervous and eager to make sure you’re ready, then you’re probably not ready,” said Travis Tygart, the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, who has testified before Congress several times. “It will be, for sure, the worst night’s sleep any witness will have.”
Golf was hardly a topic of inquiry in congressional hearing rooms. The sport’s leaders often conducted their business in Washington behind closed doors, relying on a wellspring of goodwill and civility. The tour faced significant threat in the 1990s, when the Federal Trade Commission examined antitrust issues in golf before its investigation collapsed amid a pressure campaign from Capitol Hill.
Public appearances on the Hill were more cheerful. Arnold Palmer, for example, addressed a joint meeting of Congress to pay tribute to Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Jack Nicklaus spoke to a House committee on character education.
Other titans of professional sports had less pleasant interactions in Washington. Lawmakers scrutinized everything from college football’s Bowl Championship Series (“It looks like a rigged deal,” President Biden, who was then a senator, said.) to sexual abuse, domestic violence and the NFL’s investigation into the Washington Commanders.
But baseball attracted much of the attention of Congress, as when senators called a hearing in 1958 on antitrust exemptions. (“Stengelese Is Performing to Senators,” read a later headline in The New York Times, which reported that Yankees Manager Casey Stengel had lawmakers “confused but laughing.”
For all the turmoil and skepticism, however, the cumulative pressure from Congress helped spur baseball into sweeping changes.
The objectives of the subcommittee of the Senate for golf are, at the moment, unclear.
“What’s the gain in this, other than getting your mug on the news?” asked Davis, who, after leaving Congress, represented former commanding officer Daniel Snyder during a House investigation. “Does it undo this deal? Does it reveal some Saudi conspiracy to come in and take over an American gulf?”
The wealth fund denied it was using sports to try to repair the kingdom’s reputation as a human rights abuser and instead claimed it wanted to diversify the Saudi economy and empower the country to play a greater global role. But the Saudi element could still help the Senate investigation develop staying power because it gives Congress something to investigate beyond a seemingly mundane sports issue.
“Usually when you’re involved in sports, you don’t have to talk about 9/11 families, you don’t have to talk about the Pentagon, you don’t have to talk about Flight 93,” Watts said. “In this case, the only opposition that brings everyone together is the Saudi money.”
Blumenthal hinted in the interview that he expects Saudi Arabia’s history — in the interview, he accused the kingdom of being “actively complicit in terrorist activities, including 9/11” — to be a central issue on Tuesday. procedure and the unfolding investigation.
The panel cannot unilaterally prevent the deal from moving forward, but members are well aware that a flurry of revelations or damaging testimony could spark outrage and, perhaps more consequentially, push other parts of the federal government that could do more to stop the alliance.
Tygart, the anti-doping chief, recalled a meeting with a senator before a 2017 hearing, and the lawmaker explained that he understood exactly how the event could shape public debate, even if it didn’t produce legislation.
“I know,” Tygart recalled the senator telling him, “how much good can come from witnesses sitting under the bright lights and rocking in their seats.”