Sports executives and players have sometimes fought back or patiently absorbed hours of fury. They have occasionally apologized or asked for help. They have shifted the blame or used the celebrity and childhood memory as a charm offensive. In other cases, they have lied, obfuscated or simply said little.
The PGA Tour leaders, who are expected to appear before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday to discuss their circuit’s surprise alliance with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, have a menu of time- and pressure-tested options to take on a Congress curious about sports. The tactics they resort to are likely to play a big role in whether Tuesday’s proceedings are a blip that leads to day-long headlines or a debacle that triggers far greater scrutiny.
“The PGA would be smart to understand that you’re not calling them to play patty-cake,” said JC Watts, who played quarterback at Oklahoma before representing a district in the state in Congress and, from 1999 to 2003, was served as a member of the House Republican leadership.
“The voters at home 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 twist. much deeper than typical hearing.”
That Congress, which has a long history of questioning, intimidating and threatening when it comes to sports, would enter the golf fray felt like a certainty after the tour and the Saudi wealth fund announced a framework deal on June. So far, that activity has taken the form of two Senate investigations, a House bill to revoke the tour’s tax-exempt status, demands that the Justice Department and Treasury Department consider intervening, and the Tuesday’s hearing in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The proceeding is the latest example of a congressional interest in sports that has led to a mixed record. Lawmakers and their researchers have unearthed information and, at times, caused change in the sports landscape, either through legislation or the crushing power of the bullying pulpit of Congress.
“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 baseball’s steroid use, which lawmakers described as part of a national scourge. . “That’s really what you have to do. It may be a health issue, a fiscal equity issue, but you have to articulate why Congress is involved, and that’s a high threshold.”
A sports hearing, Davis warned, was “high risk, high reward, particularly at a time when Congress doesn’t consider itself productive.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said sports’ “central” role in American society makes it especially important for Congress to scrutinize. Saudi Arabia’s proposed role in golf, he pointed out, was too much for Congress to ignore.
“There really is a national interest in this beloved and iconic American institution, which is about to be taken over by one of the most repressive governments in the world,” he said in an interview.
On Tuesday, the subcommittee will not hear 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, though the tour said Friday he would 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 any, and there is a national interest in doing so.”
After the tour announced Monahan’s planned return, a Blumenthal spokeswoman, Maria McElwain, said the subcommittee would “follow up with him regarding any remaining questions after Tuesday’s hearing.”
But the PGA Tour hopes to avoid testifying after Tuesday, when Ron Price, its director of operations, will appear. Although Price did not negotiate the deal announced last month, the tour board member who initiated the talks, James J. Dunne III, is also expected to testify.
Price and Dunne can also be asked about Randall Stephenson’s weekend resignation from the tour board of directors after more than a decade. In his resignation letter, Stephenson, the former AT&T chief executive, cited “serious concerns about how this framework agreement came to fruition without board oversight.” He added that he could not “consciously support” the deal, especially since US intelligence officials concluded that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler authorized the 2018 assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“If you’re not really nervous and anxious to make sure you’re ready, then you’re probably not ready,” said Travis Tygart, executive director of the US Anti-Doping Agency, who has repeatedly testified before Congress. “For sure it will be the worst night’s sleep any witness could have.”
Golf has hardly been a topic of investigation in congressional courtrooms. The sports leaders have often conducted their business in Washington behind closed doors, relying on a source of goodwill and graciousness. The tour faced a significant threat in the 1990s, when the Federal Trade Commission looked into antitrust issues in golf before its investigation failed amid a pressure campaign from Capitol Hill.
Public appearances on the Hill have been happier. Arnold Palmer, for example, addressed a joint meeting of Congress to pay tribute to Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Jack Nicklaus spoke before a House committee on character education.
Other titans of professional sports have had less pleasant interactions in Washington. Lawmakers have scrutinized everything from the College Football Championship Series (“It seems like a rigged deal,” said President Biden, then a senator) to sexual assault, domestic violence and the NFL’s investigation into the Majors. of washington.
But baseball has drawn much of the attention of Congress, such as when senators called a hearing in 1958 on antitrust exemptions. (“Stengelese Mystifying Senators,” read a subsequent headline in The New York Times, which reported that Yankees manager Casey Stengel had lawmakers “confused but laughing.”)
Yet for all the shock and skepticism, the pent-up pressure from Congress helped propel baseball into sweeping changes.
The goals of the Senate subcommittee on golf, for now, are unclear.
“What’s a win in this, other than your cup being on the news?” asked Davis, who, after leaving Congress, represented former Commanders owner Daniel Snyder during a House investigation. “Are you undoing this deal? Is he exposing some Saudi plot to come in and take over American golf?
The wealth fund has denied that it is using sports to try to repair the kingdom’s reputation as a human rights violator, saying instead that it wants to diversify the Saudi economy and empower the country to play a bigger global role. . But the Saudi element could still help the Senate investigation build staying power because it gives Congress something to explore beyond a seemingly mundane sports topic.
“Usually when you talk about sports, you don’t have to talk about the 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 unites everyone is Saudi money.”
Blumenthal suggested in the interview that he hopes the Saudi Arabian story — in the interview, he accused the kingdom of being “actively complicit in terrorist activities, including 9/11” — will be a central theme of Tuesday’s proceedings and the investigation into development.
The panel cannot unilaterally block the settlement from moving forward, but members are well aware that a spate of damaging disclosures or testimony could spark outrage and, perhaps more consequently, push other parts of the federal government that could do more to stop The alliance.
Tygart, the anti-doping chief, recalled meeting with a senator before a 2017 hearing, and the lawmaker made it clear that he understood exactly how the event could shape public debate, even if it didn’t lead to legislation.
“I know,” Tygart recalled the senator telling him, “how much good can come out of witnesses sitting under bright lights and squirming in their seats.”