THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Ian Grimley
Treasurer, Board of Directors
It is now widely accepted that sports, at least on the professional level (and collegiate level in the United States), is hyper-commercialized and considered to be big business. Tune into any professional sporting event and you’ll get a glimpse of millionaire athletes who get their checks signed by billionaire owners. You’ll also see advertisements galore, including the numerous television commercials, the large billboards around the stadiums, and, in some cases, advertisements on players’ uniforms. As cynical as it might sound, the sports we love have turned into massive profit-making operations.
This monetization of sports on a massive level has opened the door for large sums of money to be poured into sportswashing, the term used to describe individuals, corporations, or governments using sports to rehabilitate their public image. It is one of the most common forms of reputation laundering. For example, the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Berlin, Germany, is considered an early example of sportswashing. Among other reasons, the games were used to portray the image of Nazi Germany as a forward-thinking and orderly society. Similarly, in the modern day, 2022 was branded “The Year of Sportswashing” after the Beijing Olympics, the emergence of the Saudi government-backed LIV Golf Tour, and the FIFA World Cup held in Qatar.
Ultimately, sportswashing is a gamble that claims one will overlook human rights abuses and conveniently forget about other larger issues in favor of the glory of sport. Here’s the thing, though: it works.
For example, soccer (or football, depending on where you live in the world) has become a juicy target for individuals and governments in need of a public relations campaign to clean up their image. The FIFA World Cup, soccer’s showcase event and the most watched sporting event in the world, has been hosted on numerous occasions by countries with repressive governments. These include the 1934 World Cup hosted by Mussolini’s Italy, the 1978 World Cup held in Argentina under a military dictatorship that was responsible for the disappearance of anywhere from 9,000 to 30,000 political opponents, and the 2022 World Cup held in Qatar, which was held in venues built by migrant workers forced to work in inhumane conditions, causing the deaths of an estimated 6,500 of said workers. The intrinsic glory of a country’s athletic pursuit of excellence and the national pride associated with it can easily outweigh and overshadow other issues that might have more importance than entertainment.
State ownership of soccer teams is another sportswashing tool. Once upon a time, Manchester City were a team that was average at best. They were dwarfed in every conceivable way by their crosstown rival, Manchester United. Since being taken over in 2008 by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, an authoritarian theocracy which operates in a similar manner to Qatar, Man City have won six English Premier League titles and one European Champions’ League title. The attention paid to what is happening on the pitch dwarfs the attention paid to what issues might be plaguing the people of the UAE.
The end goal of sportswashing is to get ordinary people to defend, excuse, or refuse to acknowledge the actions of individuals who crave nothing more than money and power, usually to the detriment of others. (One might submit that it becomes a corollary of the “fanboy phenomenon” discussed previously in OSIP’s publications.)
What can one do to combat sportswashing? Specific victories have come through the coordinated organization of larger groups of people. Earlier this year, FIFA dropped Visit Saudi, the Saudi Arabian government’s official tourism board, as an official sponsor of the Women’s World Cup after an outcry from soccer players taking part in the tournament.
However, such a victory may not give off the feeling that the fans have made a dent in this conflict. The fact of the matter is that we must accept that sportswashing isn’t going away anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean that we need to boycott or refuse to watch our favorite sports. Simply acknowledging that it exists can be the first step to a better understanding and consciousness as we lobby for a culture with better sportsmanship. We can appreciate the glory of our favorite sports and root for our favorite teams while also acknowledging the shortcomings of those in power who cause this phenomenon to occur.
Further, we can use sporting events to shine a light on issues that some would like to be swept under the rug. For example, in Germany, fans of the soccer club Bayern Munich have been particularly critical of their club’s relationship with Qatar due to the team’s annual midseason trips since 2011. Because the fans spoke up, that relationship was not renewed earlier this year.
Although money and power will always talk, people can rise above it. The intangibles of sports such as the pursuit of excellence and the association with winning do not have to direct the narrative away from facts; in fact, both can exist simultaneously. The power to send a message exists even with the conscious awareness of the truth.
During Week 4 of the 2018 NFL season, Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas suffered a broken leg on the play that ended his season. As he was being carted off the field, he gave the middle finger...to his own bench.
Read that again.
Why would a player do that?
You see, Thomas was holding out for a better contract prior to the start of the season and didn't get it. Therefore, when his season was cut short due to this injury, he no longer had any leverage in trying to earn additional money. Further, who knows if his career has taken a hit based on the nature of the injury? Some teams may not want to shell out money for his contract knowing he suffered such an injury.
The "hold out" for better contracts in the NFL is an interesting topic because it doesn't happen in certain other sports for a variety of reasons. In fact, it doesn't happen much else in life. If you sign a contract, you are obligated to fulfill your responsibilities assigned with that contract unless the other party or parties breach or violate the contract. Just ask any judge.
But in the NFL, there are some factors that make you begin to understand why players might hold out.
First, take a look at the career length of football players. It's very short. The physical nature of the sport does not bode well for people to wish to last long in the league. You're more likely to end your career due to an injury than to choose when it's time to retire.
Now, here's the big one. Unlike other sports, the money owed to NFL players is not guaranteed unless it specifically says so in the contract. So if you are cut from a team, the money stops. That's not how it works in a sport such as Major League Baseball: if a team releases you, they are obligated to pay you the remainder of the contract (with the possibility of a slight reduction in cost if another team signs you).
Therefore, NFL players hold out for better contracts in order to help guarantee that they will be financially secure if something happens to them physically and cannot work. Think of it as a form of insurance.
None of this excuses Thomas. His gesture, although understood, was probably not the best idea. And perhaps he should have taken the smart route and continued to hold out. But it focuses a light on something else: the system that governs the payroll structure of football players contains a flaw based on the ability to hold out, and it has consequences on multiple sides.
Imagine if your NFL team went from being a playoff contender to a hopeless pretender because your best player decides he wants more money. Would you immediately blame him?
The point here is that there is no clear cut answer. There are no heroes. This is more about debunking certain myths and asking people to take a step back and consider the bigger picture, which is one of the staples at understanding sportsmanship.
Most of the time, when I read anything from the Sporting News, it's garbage. But this article actually had some merit to it.
Ryan Davis did an article back in August about the human side of trading players mid-season. He caught up with Sean Doolittle as he was being traded from the Oakland Athletics to the Washington Nationals, which is a pretty big jump when you consider the distance traveled in both residences and playoff standings.
Doolittle and his fiance both discussed the challenges they faced in relocating, specifically citing the attachments to their former lifestyles in Oakland. However, credit was given to the people involved in the process, such as the clubhouse attendants who did things like make sure their car was shipped as they hopped a flight, or that the lease on their place was assumed by another player.
It's easy for the fans to forget that the guys in our favorite uniforms are more than just assets being utilized for competition. These are people with families and feelings. The wave of emotions that can sweep through a person when he is traded is immense, ranging from anxiety to depression.
One of the most common feelings a traded player may experience is, "So my old team didn't want me anymore? They thought I wasn't any good?" Thankfully, this isn't usually the case in most trades, but it's a common human reaction.
In Doolittle's case, the A's traded him because the Nats wanted him, not because the A's didn't. They needed arms in the bullpen who were competent and could help them in their playoff push. The A's weren't going anywhere that season, and the opportunity to receive younger talent with a chance for success in the future was worth more to them than to covet an asset in his prime during a time when a championship was not in the realm of possibilities.
By contrast, consider the trade made between the Yankees and White Sox around the same time. One player who might have felt this emotion was Tyler Clippard. Clippard struggled for two months prior to the trade, so when the Yankees acquired David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to upgrade their bullpen, Clippard was the pitcher who had to go based on his performance. The White Sox took Clippard back in the trade, which turned out to be smart on their part because they were able to flip him to the Houston Astros later to acquire more potential assets.
The fact of the matter is that we, as fans, owe it to the sport and the players to keep our fandom in check insomuch as it concerns remembering the human element the players face in these situations. If you ever had to pick up and move because a parent got a new job out of state, perhaps you can relate to what these players experience. Although, the massive salaries probably ease that burden...
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.