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DeSantis Event at Chelsea Piers Faces Backlash Over L.G.B.T.Q. Rights

DeSantis Event at Chelsea Piers Faces Backlash Over L.G.B.T.Q. Rights

For the second time this spring, a New York City institution is facing a backlash over a conservative Jewish conference, long in the planning, because of one of its featured speakers: Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

In May, the Museum of Jewish Heritage backed out of a tentative rental agreement to host the event. Now, Chelsea Piers, a recreation complex with a large event space at its Manhattan location and which agreed to host the conference this weekend, is being widely criticized by elected officials and activist groups who say that Mr. DeSantis should not speak at a site that has played an important role in New York’s L.G.B.T.Q. history.

Earlier this year, Mr. DeSantis signed legislation that prohibited classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation for some age groups in Florida schools, known by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

The event, the Jewish Leadership Conference, was organized by the Tikvah Fund, a conservative Jewish organization, which said it invited Mr. DeSantis to deliver a speech about the vibrancy of Jewish life in Florida.

But when the Museum of Jewish Heritage learned of Mr. DeSantis’s participation, its leadership pulled out of the event, telling Tikvah that the legislation was not in line with its values of inclusivity.

Tikvah then arranged to hold the conference at Chelsea Piers, and publicly accused the museum of engaging in cancel culture in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. Officials at the sports complex were not aware of the dispute with the museum before that essay was published on May 5, a spokesman said.

Now, facing the threat of protests and boycotts, the recreation complex finds itself at the center of a pitched dispute that touches on issues of identity, inclusivity, religion and free speech. And it has left Chelsea Piers in a quandary that is in many ways emblematic of the tense — and intensely political — national conversation around whether people with views that some consider abhorrent or dangerous should be given a platform.

“The bottom line is Chelsea Piers is providing a venue to propagate hate toward the L.G.B.T.Q. community and that is unacceptable on many levels, including that it is Pride and that it is in Chelsea, the heart of the community,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman, the Manhattan Democrat who represents the area. He has helped lead calls for Chelsea Piers to cancel the event, which will also feature speeches by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ron Dermer, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

On Friday, Chelsea Piers responded to the uproar by saying that it will not cancel the event and that it does not police the views expressed by those who rent its event spaces. Instead, it said it would donate the money it received from the event to “groups that protect L.G.B.T.Q.+ communities, and foster and amplify productive debates about L.G.B.T.Q.+ issues.”

“We could not disagree more strongly with many of Ron DeSantis’ actions in office,” it said in an unsigned email to staff members. “One response to abhorrent behavior is to counter it with positive action.”

A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis declined to address the controversy and instead described the governor as a champion of religious liberty and a friend of Israel.

“He has defended religious Floridians and their right to assemble and practice their religion in spite of attempts from the left to lockdown places of worship,” the campaign said. “The governor will always stand up for what is right and will not be deterred by the radical left.”

Eric Cohen, the chief executive of the Tikvah Fund, declined to comment on the latest round of controversy on Friday, writing in an email that he was choosing to focus “on the event itself” and that the group was looking forward to “an important conference, with roughly 20 speakers, on the great questions facing the Jewish people, America, Israel and the West.”

In an interview last month, after the conference was left without a venue, Mr. Cohen rejected the idea that Tikvah was holding a partisan program.

“Our event endorses no candidates and serves no political party,” Mr. Cohen said. “It is all about ideas.”

The decision by Chelsea Piers to donate money to L.G.B.T.Q. groups has not mollified critics, who are organizing a protest in front of Pier 60 on Sunday to coincide with the conference.

The New York City Gay Hockey Association, which has been based at Chelsea Piers for more than two decades, wrote a letter to the complex’s management, saying its members felt “disappointment, sadness and even repulsion.” It demanded the event’s cancellation.

“The Museum of Jewish Heritage declined to host this event,” the group’s board wrote. “We wish Pier 60 had approached this with the same scrutiny and reverence for the community it serves, as well as the larger Chelsea Piers community.”

Other groups are canceling upcoming events at Chelsea Piers. Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for GLAAD, the L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy group, said his organization would “refrain from future events” at the complex, “given the platform that Chelsea Piers is giving to one of the most anti-L.G.B.T.Q. and dangerous politicians today.”

The Ali Forney Center, a group that works with homeless L.G.B.T.Q. youth in New York, said on Friday that it would no longer be holding a program there next month.

“People are saying this issue is about freedom of speech, but it is not. It is in response to DeSantis silencing freedom of speech in schools,” the group’s president, Alex Roque, wrote in a statement.

Mr. Roque said the event was “a triple insult” because it was happening during Pride Month; in a gay neighborhood at a recreation complex used by many gay people and their families; and in a complex built on a site that holds unique significance in New York’s gay history.

Chelsea Piers was built in the mid-1990s, but the site’s original piers had been constructed for the docking of ocean liners and other large ships in the early 1900s.

By the 1960s, the piers had fallen into disrepair, but they were soon reborn as a ramshackle refuge for homeless L.G.B.T.Q. young people and as a well-known waterside hangout for gay men and others.

The area became synonymous with a clandestine sort of gay freedom in the years after the Stonewall uprising, in 1969, which occurred at the nearby Stonewall Inn and is widely seen as the birth of the modern gay rights movement.

The area also drew artists and photographers, who depicted the scene at the piers in works that have been shown in recent, well-received exhibitions at venues like the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in Manhattan.

“This could not be happening in a worse location,” Mr. Roque said. “And it sends really conflicting messages about what Chelsea Piers cares about. Their Instagram right now is full of posts about Pride Month, but doing this is totally the opposite of that.”

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Saudi-backed golf tour lures PGA pros, but backlash lands them in the rough | CBC News

Saudi-backed golf tour lures PGA pros, but backlash lands them in the rough | CBC News

The world of professional golf is embroiled in a very messy, very public divorce with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

Thursday in London, 17 of the world’s top golfers, including Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, teed off in the first event on the new Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf tour.

Even though 10 of the 17 players had already formally resigned from the PGA tour, commissioner Jay Monahan officially banned all of them from playing in future PGA events moments after the London event began.

LIV players are still eligible to compete in golf’s four major tournaments, which the PGA does not control.

Phil Mickelson of the United States plays from the first tee during the first round of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational on Thursday. (Alastair Grant/The Associated Press)

“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” Monahan said in a statement. “But they can’t demand the same PGA Tour membership benefits, considerations, opportunities and platform as you. The expectation disrespects you, our fans and our partners.”

 LIV Golf quickly responded: “It’s troubling that the tour, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for golfers to play the game, is the entity blocking golfers from playing.”

Like many divorces, this is about money.

The eight-event LIV tour is being funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which is controlled by members of the Saudi royal family and has about $600 billion in assets. It is offering prize money of $25 million per tournament, dwarfing even the biggest purses on the PGA tour.

It’s also paid massive appearance fees to entice top players to join this new tour. Johnson and Mickelson were reportedly paid $150 million and $200 million before ever hitting a shot.

Fracturing the game

The RBC Canadian Open, one of the oldest stops on the PGA tour with a total purse of $8.7 million, is being held this week in Toronto and is the first PGA event to go head to head with the LIV tour.

(LIV is the Roman numeral 54, referring to the 54 holes that make up tour events as opposed to the 72 on the PGA Tour)

Even before the tournament began, RBC lost its main spokesperson and face of the Canadian Open when Dustin Johnson abruptly bolted to the LIV Tour.

Wyndham Clark of the United States lines up his putt on the 8th green during the first round of the RBC Canadian Open in Toronto on Thursday. One of the oldest stops on the PGA tour, the Canadian Open is also the first PGA event to go head-to-head against LIV tour. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Tournament officials point to a quality field featuring five of the top 10 players in the world and robust ticket sales as evidence that despite LIV’s arrival on the scene, the PGA is stronger than ever.

“You want to watch the best players in the world, especially some of the best young players in the world. They’re here in Canada. They’re here in Toronto,” RBC Canadian Open tournament director Bryan Crawford told CBC.

At the same time, players expressed worry about how this new deep-pocketed tour could change golf’s future.

“Any decision that you make in your life that’s purely for money usually doesn’t end up going the right way,” said four-time major winner Rory McIlroy. “I think it’s a shame that it’s going to fracture the game.”

Canadian golfer Graham DeLaet, who played for more than decade on the PGA tour before recently retiring, says it will be hard for many players to turn their backs on money never seen before in golf.

“There’s a lot of ethical and moral questions regarding where the money is coming from but guys make their own decisions and, when that cheque is dangled in front of your eyes,  I mean it makes things a little more difficult,” DeLaet told CBC.

As DeLaet points out, this story is about more than just money and golf. It’s also about politics.

There has been a renewed focus on Saudi regime backing the upstart LIV tour and its atrocious human rights record including, most recently, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

WATCH | LIV Golf’s big money has lured top golfers away from PGA tour:

Saudi-funded golf league poaches top talent from PGA tour

The LIV Golf league funded by the Saudi government is poaching some of the world’s top golfers, including Dustin Johnson, to leave the PGA Tour.

Golf vs. politics

In the days leading up to the London event, players like Mickelson did their best to keep the worlds of golf and politics separate.

 “I’m certainly aware of what happened with Jamal Khashoggi and I think it’s terrible,” Mickelson said. “I’ve also seen the good that the game of golf has done throughout history, and I believe that LIV Golf is going to do a lot of good.”

Mickelson, right, shakes hands with Saudi businessman Yasir Al-Rumayyan after the first round of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational at St. Albans, England. Al-Rumayyan is the governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which is backing LIV Golf. (Paul Childs/Reuters)

Fellow LIV player Graeme McDowell rejected the notion that by participating in the Saudi backed tour, he was normalizing or excusing the regime’s atrocities.

“I think as golfers, if we tried to cure geopolitical situations in every country in the world that we play golf in, we wouldn’t play a lot of golf,” he said.

Still, some contend that for golfers, many who have made a fortune playing the game, this should be about more than the money being dangled by the LIV Tour.

Cheri Bradish, a sport marketing professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, argues that the golfers who so far have rejected LIV’s overtures may be the ultimate winners in this just-beginning battle.

“If you want to think about keeping your partners, doing your speaking gigs and still having relationships commercially and people will argue with $150 million, you don’t need those,” Bradish said. 

“But you want to believe in this society. that sports figures will understand that they can and could and should do very good things with the platform that they have.”