Sports executives and players have sometimes defended themselves or patiently absorbed hours of fury. They have occasionally apologized or pleaded for help. They have shifted blame or used celebrity and childhood memory as a charm offensive. In other instances, they have lied or obfuscated or simply said little at all.
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 for facing a sports-curious Congress. The tactics they turn to will likely do much to influence whether Tuesday’s proceeding is a blip that leads to a day’s worth of headlines or a debacle that triggers far greater scrutiny.
“The PGA would be smart to understand that they’re not calling them in to play patty-cake,” said J.C. Watts, who played quarterback at Oklahoma before representing a district in the state in Congress and, from 1999 to 2003, serving as a member of the Republican leadership in the House.
“The constituents back home, they understand sports and they understand 9/11,” Watts added, referring to longstanding accusations that Saudi government operatives played a role in the 2001 attacks. “This is sports with a much deeper twist than your typical hearing.”
That Congress, which has a long history of quizzing, hectoring and looming when it comes to sports, would step into golf’s fray felt like a certainty after the tour and the Saudi wealth fund announced a framework agreement on June 6. So far, that activity has taken the form of two Senate inquiries, 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 Senate’s 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 investigators have unearthed information and sometimes provoked changes to the sports landscape, either through legislation or the grinding power of the congressional bully pulpit.
“I think you’ve got to articulate your public policy purpose,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who was instrumental in hearings nearly two decades ago about steroid use in baseball, which lawmakers depicted as a part of a national scourge. “That’s really what you’ve got to do. It can be a health thing, a tax equity thing, but you’ve got to articulate why Congress is involved, and it’s a high threshold.”
A sports hearing, Davis warned, was “high-risk, high-reward, particularly at a time when Congress is not seen as productive.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who is the subcommittee’s chairman, said sports’ “central” role in American society makes them especially important for Congress to scrutinize. The proposed Saudi role in golf, he signaled, was too much for Congress to ignore.
“There really is a national interest in this cherished, iconic American institution, which is 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 PGA Tour commissioner, has been on medical leave for almost a month, though the tour said Friday that he would return next week. Yasir al-Rumayyan, the wealth fund’s governor, and Greg Norman, the commissioner of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league, cited scheduling conflicts and declined to appear.
“Suffice it 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 there is a national interest in doing it.”
After the tour announced Monahan’s planned return, a spokeswoman for Blumenthal, Maria McElwain, said that the subcommittee would be “following up with him regarding any remaining questions after Tuesday’s hearing.”
But the PGA Tour is hoping to avoid testifying after Tuesday, when Ron Price, its chief operating officer, will appear. Although Price did not negotiate the agreement announced last month, the tour board member who initiated the talks, James J. Dunne III, is also expected to testify.
Price and Dunne may also be asked about the weekend resignation of Randall Stephenson from the tour’s board after more than a decade. In his resignation letter, Stephenson, the former chief executive of AT&T, cited “serious concerns with how this framework agreement came to fruition without board oversight.” He added that the deal was not one that he could “in good conscience support,” especially because American intelligence officials concluded that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler authorized the 2018 murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“If you are not really nervous and anxious to make sure you are prepared, then you are probably not prepared,” said Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, who has repeatedly testified before Congress. “It will, for sure, be the worst night of sleep that any witness is going to have.”
Golf has scarcely been a topic of inquiry in congressional hearing rooms. The sport’s leaders have often handled their business in Washington behind closed doors, relying on a fount of good will and gentility. The tour faced a significant threat in the 1990s, when the Federal Trade Commission examined antitrust issues in golf before its inquiry fizzled amid a pressure campaign from Capitol Hill.
Public appearances on the Hill have been more cheery. Arnold Palmer, for instance, addressed a joint meeting of Congress to pay tribute to Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Jack Nicklaus spoke to a House committee about character education.
Other titans of professional sports have had less pleasant interactions in Washington. Lawmakers have examined 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 N.F.L.’s investigation into the Washington Commanders.
But baseball has drawn much of the attention from Congress, like when senators called a 1958 hearing on antitrust exemptions. (“Stengelese Is Baffling to Senators,” read a subsequent headline in The New York Times, which reported that Yankees Manager Casey Stengel had lawmakers “confused but laughing.”)
For all of the commotion and skepticism, though, the cumulative pressure from Congress helped prod baseball into sweeping changes.
The Senate subcommittee’s goals for golf are, for now, unclear.
“What’s a win on this, outside of getting your mug on the news?” asked Davis, who, after leaving Congress, represented the former Commanders owner Daniel Snyder during a House inquiry. “Is it undoing this deal? Is it 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 abuser and has instead asserted that it wants to diversify the Saudi economy and empower the country to play a greater global role. But the Saudi element could still help the Senate inquiry to develop staying power because it gives Congress something to explore beyond a seemingly mundane sports issue.
“Usually when you’re taking about 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 one opposition that rallies everybody is the Saudi money.”
Blumenthal suggested 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 theme of Tuesday’s proceeding and the unfolding inquiry.
The panel cannot unilaterally block the deal from advancing, but members are well aware that a crush of revelations or damaging testimony could stir outrage and, perhaps more consequentially, nudge other parts of the federal government that could do more to stop the alliance.
Tygart, the antidoping chief, recalled a meeting with a senator before a 2017 hearing, with the lawmaker making plain that he understood exactly how the event could shape public debate, even if it did not yield legislation.
“I know,” Tygart remembered the senator telling him, “how much good can come out of witnesses sitting under the bright lights and squirming in their seats.”