As the controversial Saudi-funded LIV golf league plays its first US tournament this week near Portland, Oregon, US Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland confirmed to USA on Monday. TODAY Sports that her husband, Keith, a veteran golf television producer, is “a contractor for LIV.”
When asked about her husband’s role at LIV Golf, Hirshland, who has led the USOPC for nearly four years and is considered the highest-ranking woman in American sports, texted:
“I can confirm that you are a LIV contractor. Beyond that, I will not comment on my husband’s employment, nor will I speak on his behalf. We are both professionals who have made, and will continue to make, individual professional decisions. In the year 2022, I hope that the careers of their husbands will not define women.”
She continued: “In my role as Executive Director of the USOPC and supporter of the Olympic and Paralympic movements, I am steadfast in my determination to uphold the ideals of the Olympic values. I will always defend sport as a path to peace and understanding between communities and cultures. That’s my approach.”
Keith Hirshland did not respond to a message seeking comment Sunday night.
For the past month, news of defections from the PGA Tour for extraordinary amounts of Saudi money (for example, $200 million for Phil Mickelson) has unsettled men’s golf and become the top story in the sports world.
In addition to Mickelson, big names like Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau have gone to LIV Golf’s big 54-hole, exhibition-style tournaments.
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The new tour has also brought in broadcasters Arlo White, former NBC Sports Premier League broadcaster, and Golf Channel reporter Jerry Foltz, LIV Golf announced earlier this month. The tournaments are not available over the air or on cable television, but are streamed on the LIV Golf website, as well as on YouTube and Facebook.
LIV Golf spokespeople received multiple emails from USA TODAY Sports over the past few weeks asking about Keith Hirshland’s role with their broadcast team, including Monday, but declined to confirm his employment or his specific role or title.
LIV Golf is funded by the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund, controlled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. MBS, as it is known, sanctioned the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to US human rights organizations and intelligence agencies.
Various individuals and groups, including Khashoggi’s fiancee, an organization of 9/11 families, and US Sen. Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., have criticized the involvement of American golfers in the Saudi venture.
“They are helping the Saudi regime ‘whitewash’ its reputation in exchange for tens of millions of dollars,” said Terry Strada, national president of 9/11 Families United, in a statement to USA TODAY Sports on June 13. “As the PGA Tour commissioner said on Sunday: ‘You’d have to be living under a rock’ not to understand the implications of getting involved with the Saudis.”
Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis.
In a June 16 phone interview, USA TODAY Sports asked Wyden what he would say to Mickelson about his relationship with the Saudis.
“I would just say this is wrong,” Wyden said. “I went to school on a basketball scholarship. I deeply believe in the role of sport in helping to promote goodwill. I would tell Mr. Mickelson that he can do better than this. You can be much better than this, you will clearly have many opportunities to win very significant sums of money, but you can do it in a way that does not reward those with blood on their hands.
On April 25, the mayors of 11 Oregon cities near the Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, site of this week’s LIV golf tournament, wrote a letter expressing similar concerns.
“We oppose this event because it is being sponsored by a repressive government whose human rights abuses are documented,” the mayors said. “We refuse to support these abuses by knowingly allowing the Saudi-backed organization to play in our backyard.”
According to LIV Golf, players in this week’s tournament will be playing for $25 million in prize money. Earlier this month, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan suspended 17 golfers who left the tour to play in the first-ever LIV Golf tournament in London.
“The PGA Tour, an American institution, cannot compete with a foreign monarchy that is spending billions of dollars in an attempt to buy the game of golf,” Monahan said last week. “We welcome some good and healthy competition. LIV Saudi Golf League is not that. It is an irrational threat, not caring about return on investment or true growth of the game.”
Contributor: Tom Schad, Associated Press