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Saturday sports: Big games and sponsors break Russian ties

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now, even in a week like this, it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And the sports world reacts to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. A great golfer takes a break after being quoted as saying something that might only be true. Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media joins us. Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: I'm fine, thanks. Polish men's national soccer team won't play Russia in the World Cup qualifiers. They refuse. Man U has cancelled a huge sponsorship deal with Aeroflot, the Russian airline. Champions League Final moved out of St. Petersburg, Russia. What's setting off the show of principal, Howard?

BRYANT: Yes, well, it is obviously the conflict, the invasion of the Ukraine. And I think that the sports world, like all the other different entities, these international entities, are going to have to make some real decisions. You're not part of - or apart of the world anymore. You're not apart from the world anymore. I think we've seen it, obviously, with the Olympics, the last two Olympics, without a whole lot of movement. People talk about what was happening in China. People talked about what was happening in terms of human rights. But this is an invasion, and you saw with the Ukrainian athletes, whether it's Dayana Yastremska, the tennis player. Sergiy Stakhovsky joined the Ukrainian Army - former tennis player who beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon. You've seen the Russian tennis players, Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev, talk about this as well. So it's going to be very interesting to see how an international industry like sports deals with the horrific nature of what we're seeing in the Ukraine border.

SIMON: I find myself very moved by what some high-profile Russian athletes have done in speaking out. Now, perhaps they all, you know, have homes to which they can repair to in Florida. But they must be taking on some risk.

BRYANT: Well, absolutely they're taking on risk because these political questions are - they're not - one, they're not inconsequential. And two, these players all know each other, and those borders in a lot of ways are simply borders of geography. They're not impersonal. You know, these players, they travel together. They know each other. Elina Svitolina, the tennis player as well, was talking - you know, follow her social media. All of them are, you know, they're connected by profession and in very, very personal ways as well. So it's not as though they're taking a hard political line because there's a political conflict going on. There's a human element to all of this.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Phil Mickelson, finally, quoted in an advance copy of a biography about him. He refers to Saudi Arabia, a country that is tied to the proposed Super Golf League, as scary. He criticizes its treatment of gays and its alleged assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Why does he feel he has to apologize and take a break from the sport?

BRYANT: Well, because Phil Mickelson said, as we say, the quiet part out loud, and he offended the sponsors, and he messed with the money. And this is exactly one of these things that this entire - our entire segment today is really talking about this sort of, you know, the international versus the sport. And this is one of these examples where you listen to what Phil Mickelson said, and all of these things are very public. And they're not - I mean, they're controversial, but I'm not sure he's lying. I think the problem that he had was obviously the nature of what he was talking about and also the fact that he knows that the comments, which he claimed were off the record to the writer Alan Shipnuck and said that they were taken out of context, of course, but what he's really saying is that the Professional Golfers Association has too much power over the players and that this is also some area where he saw a little bit of area for some dissidence, a little area to change the relationship that the players have with golf, that the players don't have any leverage. And then obviously the human rights element of this is embarrassing to the Saudis as well and that they weren't going to take that line down, especially when you're dealing with enormous, enormous sums of money. But I still say when Mickelson said what he said, good for him. He wasn't lying.

SIMON: Howard Bryant, thanks so much.

BRYANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.