Deshaun Watson and Jilly Anais in Saudi Arabia. Deshaun Watson and Jilly Anais in Saudi Arabia. (@NFLARAB on Twitter/X.)

There’s long been discussion of “sportswashing,” or the idea of controversial regimes using sports events to bolster their image. Some notable conversations there go back almost a century to events like the 1936 Berlin Olympics. And the first modern Olympics in 1896 and even the ancient Greek Olympics, as well as other sporting events throughout history, also had national and political overtones. However, the discussion has intensified in recent decades, and it’s gone beyond hosting purely international events such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup.

Recent developments there have included the launch of state-backed leagues, dramatically increased funding for local leagues to compete for players on a global scale, the courting of individual athletes to promote tourism in the country, and bids to host games from leagues based in other countries. And the latter two popped up together Tuesday. That came with a Twitter/X post from controversial Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson about how much he enjoyed visiting Saudi Arabia and wanting the NFL to play a game there.

The full text of that:

“I had a nice time visiting Saudi Arabia and learned a lot about the original Saudi culture and society.

And I enjoyed watching Al-Nassar, Al-Al-Wali and Al-Hilal, Al-Zaim, and I heard a lot about the singing of Al-Ahly fans and Al-Ittihad.

Special thanks to His Royal Highness Prince @Saudi49er [Abdullah Bin Mossaad] for the hospitality and generosity

And God willing, we will see the 🏈 in Saudi Arabia soon 🙏🏾 May peace be with you!
@NFLARAB @ssc_sports”

Watson also retweeted several posts from the @NFLARAB account promoting his visit. And while he’s far from the only prominent athlete to visit and promote Saudi Arabia (soccer star Lionel Messi reportedly gets $2 million per Instagram post about the country under his own deal there), Watson’s involvement here is interesting on a couple of fronts. For one, Watson remains highly controversial following civil litigation against him from 22 women (eventually settled), an NFL investigation, an 11-game suspension from the league, and more.

For another, while the NFL is playing an ever-expanding series of international games, it’s certainly unusual to see an individual player (and a starting quarterback at that) lobbying for a specific country as a destination. And it’s significant for that country to be Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have perhaps been the most notable on all of those above-discussed sportswashing fronts, and the idea of them landing an NFL game is sure to raise some particular hackles.

Of course, Saudi Arabia’s sports moves should not be seen in isolation. As mentioned above, the history of using sports to promote national aims is long and extensive. And in the last decades alone, we’ve seen that “sportswashing” approach from Russia, Qatar, China, and more. And many have pointed out the NBA’s particular oftencontroversial dealings with China amidst serious accusations of political oppression and persecution of minorities by the government there.

Still, Saudi Arabia stands out for a few reasons. One is its much smaller economy (19th in purchasing power parity GDP) relative to China and Russia (1st and 6th respectively). While not everyone works as specifically closely with China as the NBA in particular does, the list of large companies with no Chinese ties whatsoever is quite short, while there are many companies that don’t deal with Saudi Arabia directly. And Saudi Arabia has recently been extremely aggressive on the sports front, with moves there including LIV Golf, Al Nassr’s signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, and the expected-to-prevail bid to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup.

Saudi Arabia also has been involved in two particular things that continue to raise a significant amount of U.S. outrage. The first is the 9/11 attacks; 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and there remains significant controversy around the country’s ties there. The Saudi government has regularly denied playing a role in those attacks, but there is an ongoing lawsuit against it from families of those impacted, one made possible by 2016 U.S. legislation. And many of those families have regularly criticized Saudi sports pushes, including LIV Golf.

The other specific incident with Saudi Arabia, and the one that at this point has seen much more reporting directly linking it to the Saudi government, is the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. That prompted major international condemnation of the Saudi government, and it continues to draw strong responses from press foundations and advocacy groups in particular. That has shown up around past Saudi sports involvement, and absolutely would again if the NFL did something there.

Meanwhile, the NFL has been relatively cautious with the countries it stages games in. To date, most of its international games have been in England, Canada, or Mexico. Germany was recently added as a regular host of games, Brazil will host a game next year, and Spain is set for one in 2025. Still, the only real controversial destination there is Brazil, and there’s going to be much less criticism there than there would be for a Saudi Arabia game.

And while getting Deshaun Watson to promote Saudi Arabia on social media is certainly notable, he’s not involved in the decisions on where the NFL plays internationally. Those decisions are generally made at an extremely high level, and they’d likely involve even more from commissioner Roger Goodell and key owners around a controversial country like Saudi Arabia. So, it’s certainly going to take more than just a deal with Watson to get this done.

However, the idea of NFL games in Saudi Arabia definitely can’t be rejected out of hand. The degree to which the NFL’s international games have grown would have been difficult to predict even two decades ago, and the situation could change more in the years ahead. And with that 2034 World Cup, the Saudis will build plenty of state-of-the-art stadiums that likely could host the NFL. One thing to keep an eye on is whether a particular team claims Saudi Arabia as a marketing destination; there are currently 18 countries on the list of specific marketing rights for individual teams, but none in the Middle East. A move there could be the first step towards a game.

The other factor to watch with the NFL and Saudi Arabia is on ownership. The league is reportedly close to allowing private equity firms to make limited investments in teams for the first time ever. That could pave the way for countries like Saudi Arabia to get involved, either through their own wealth funds or (perhaps more likely) through investments in other private equity firms. (One such firm, RedBird Capital, has a deal with the United Arab Emirates wealth fund, and they have a lot of sports investments already.)

And even limited ownership stakes might make a big difference in expanding NFL involvement in a country or region. Other leagues are much easier to buy into (for example, the Saudi investment fund led the 2021 takeover of the Premier League’s Newcastle United), but the NFL could be in play in at least some regard down the road.

At this point, it’s far from clear that the NFL will be significantly involved with Saudi Arabia anytime soon. A few social media posts from Deshaun Watson alone don’t necessarily mean anything specific is in the works. But it is notable to see a prominent NFL player amidst the ranks of athletes promoting the country. And perhaps Watson’s posts here will be remembered as an early moment on the road to something bigger.

[Deshaun Watson on Twitter/X]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.