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.
By Nadia Leunig
Secretary of the Board of Directors
I am an administrator in a small district located in Central New Jersey (yes, it does exist). One of the best suggestions I received this summer was to read The Power of a Positive Team by Jon Gordon. He discusses a myriad of team dynamics in the book that includes businesses, schools, and sports. While reading the book, I realized why I was so dissatisfied at the end of my son’s soccer season.
I never participated in sports as a child; my focus in school was Fine and Performing Arts. So imagine my surprise when my son asked me to play soccer when he was five years old. I knew absolutely nothing about the game but would do anything to support my son. I signed him up for the township’s recreational league and so began our soccer journey. After a couple of years, he was able to participate in the travel soccer program.
I learned the most about sportsmanship from that travel program. It is so easy to become one of those parents who yell at the referee about a call that was made. It was so easy to yell at our kids from the sideline to run faster and play harder. I really had to sit back and ask myself, “Am I helping my son by acting this way?” The answer was obviously no, and I had to change my mindset. As parents, we are one of the best people to show our children good sportsmanship, how to lose with grace, and how to navigate negative feelings.
Throughout the two years, I watched the team grow together. The first season was rough. We lost every single game. While some of the parents were not happy with that outcome, our coaches kept reiterating the importance of teamwork and foundational skills. We won only one game that winter, but we went undefeated that spring season. The boys even won a tournament where they were playing against a team that was many flights above them. All stakeholders in the team went into the second year with a positive outlook.
Near the end of our second year, though, I started to notice a change. At first, I did not know how to put it into words, but The Power of a Positive Team helped. There was a shift in the team's mindset: rather than being processed-focused, the team was becoming outcome-focused. There was more importance placed on individuals who wanted to win rather than the entirety of being a great team. I honestly believe this is what caused our team to fall apart. There were games lost that shouldn’t have been lost. The language that was being used toward the boys changed. I was not surprised when my son was not asked back on the team. He is a solid member of a team but is not a standout individual player.
At the end of the day, not making the team is not the end of the world. My son made another travel soccer team, and I hope we can continue to build that good sportsmanship and teamwork mentality. I wish the former team all the best and hope they can continue to grow like they want. If you are a coach and/or a parent of a youth sports team, remember that it is not about the outcome. Focus on the roots of your tree and you will see the fruit of your labor.
“No one creates success alone. We all need a team to be successful……Positivity leads to winning.” - Jon Gordon (2018)
By Sean Comerford
Member, Board of Directors
I have been following a lot of football (soccer) in the last few years and have very much enjoyed it. The international nature of the game along with the excitement of the recent World Cup, etc., make it a nice complement to watching purely domestic or regional sports. However, one thing that is a bit odd, at least to this American sports fan, is the tolerance of sponsorships on the uniforms of the players. The sponsorships are invariably more prominent and flashier than the actual club crests. This can be annoying but uneventful if a sponsor is something like a well-known consumer brand, such as a carmaker. However, the sponsorships for European sports teams are increasingly for gambling.
In a Pete Rose-esque situation, Ivan Toney, an English Premier League striker for the club Brentford, was recently banned from football for the better part of the next year because he was found to have bet on the sport numerous times against regulations. This included betting on his own team to lose when he was not scheduled to play. Unlike Pete Rose, however, Toney’s bookie was essentially emblazoned on his shirt -- Brentford is one team among many that is currently sponsored by a betting company in the Premiership.
This may not be shocking even to Americans now in our "everything is sponsored by DraftKings" existence. However, as people not of gambling age watch these sports, do gambling advertisements send a message that is harmful to consumers? In England, at least, there is some “consciousness of guilt” as shirts sold for youngsters are forbidden to display betting platform logos, instead featuring blank space.
There have been reports that the Premier League teams agreed to dial back betting sponsorships, at least on the front of shirts, in the coming years. It appears to be a tardy attempt to quiet some of the uncomfortable feelings that arose in the wave of this seemingly overnight takeover by the gambling industry.
Were professional sports not profitable enough even without betting sponsors? Was it not foreseeable that there would be repercussions to ceding “typical” sponsorship space to gambling companies?
Even if most who choose to gamble can do so responsibly, is sponsorship money worth ensnaring the small percentage of people that might become addicted? It seems that for now, on both sides of the Atlantic, the answer is yes, whether we like it or not.
This past MLB season saw something happen that not many people noticed:
The World Umpire Association (WUA), which is union that represents MLB umps, rebranded as the Major League Baseball Umpires Association (MLBUA), and became the fifth of the "big five" professional team sports to have a major online presence through websites and social media.
MLB umpires join officials from the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLS as becoming more transparent to the public. Granted, the public will probably go the way of abusing this privilege (see the #RefWatchParty that occurred during the NBA Finals), but the intent to keep the conversation open and ongoing is a fantastic thing.
The union has actually been very active on Twitter (@MLBUA), showcasing good calls by umpires in an attempt to educate the general public on how they work. Possibly the best part of this work, however, is even more highlights for the UMPS CARE charity.
Officials in these major sports take unfortunate abuse from the uneducated public. Players, coaches, and the media have a tendency to speak and act in ways that do not represent the educated point of view of the official. These actions speak to a psychological issue of scapegoating, leaving the officials as the common enemy among rivals.
The officials are tired of being treated as sub-humans. These platforms will allow their voices to be heard. The public would be smart to recognize this and know they are proud to uphold the integrity of the game and do their job.
Okay, SNL's Stefon (as portrayed by Bill Hader) actually doesn't have anything to do with this post, but based on the way the author of the original article presented it, only Stefon could make it work.
Back in early 2017, a soccer match in Brazil turned into a brawl. That brawl then turned into a potpourri of other things. Follow me as I introduce this brawl as Stefon...
"This brawl has everything: riot police, tear gas, fans playing tug-of-war over a banner..."
Credit to Sam Klomhaus of the18.com for starting this. Check out http://the18.com/soccer-news/match-brazil-devolved-violent-game-tug-war for the original clip too.
Laughs aside, though, take a look at the clip at the brawl between Gama and Brasiliense. Ultimately, after the players started fighting, the fans followed suit in a mass looting spree that would have made old-fashioned pillagers jealous. "Let's rip this banner down and hope nobody else wants it!"
I don't even know if words can properly describe what happens with the exception of stating that if you had a fear of traveling outside your comfort zone, then you definitely shouldn't head south.
While sitting at one of my favorite pizza places having a sandwich (which is ironic in itself), I was watching a soccer game on the television that was mounted in the corner of the restaurant. My friends behind the counter were invested in this game taking place in Europe, which is no surprise since soccer (or football, as it is more popularly known throughout the rest of the world) is one of the most universal games we have.
I noticed something interesting, though. The crowd at this game was singing in unison while the match was going on...and they didn't stop. It reminded me of a college football game, where sections of underage drunk students would constantly be making obnoxious noise in their attempt to will their team to victory. Thus, it also reminded me of the traditions we hold in American football (the NFL), such as the deafening crowd noise that arises when the visiting team is on offense, in an attempt to influence the outcome of the game by not allowing the offensive players to communicate.
As a steward of the game of baseball, I always viewed this as unsportsmanlike. No matter my role with the game of baseball (be it player, coach, or fan...because umpire is slightly different in this context), my enjoyment of the game came from watching it unfold and participating in the role I had. If I was a player, I was never the cheerleading leader of my team; I focused on what my job was depending on where the ball was hit, or what I needed to do during my turn at-bat. If I was a coach or manager, I was thinking strategy and when it was time to remove my pitcher for a fresh arm. If I was a fan, I was trying to see if my thought process was aligned with the players and coaches of teams I was watching (and obviously rooting for the Yankees). I was never trying to be the loud and obnoxious fan that was attempting to influence the game.
In fairness, however, baseball in America does have one accepted custom that has found unanimously in stadiums. When the home pitcher gets two strikes on the opposing batter, usually the fans will stand and cheer to encourage the strikeout. This was started by Yankees fans during the dominance of Ron Guidry and his record number of strikeouts. And I will admit that I find myself falling in place with this custom, usually when there are two strikes and two outs in the ninth inning and we're one pitch away from winning the game.
This and the singing at a soccer match got me thinking about the different customs at sporting events throughout the world, and it led to a broad examination as to what is culturally accepted as well as a debate as to whether the cultural acceptance is actually a morally good thing.
If we stick with baseball, most of the cheering (or other fan reactions) will occur when a play is not occurring or a pitch is not being made. Fans cheer after a player gets a hit or after a pitcher records a strikeout. The cheering that occurs when a batter has two strikes on him doesn't have the exact same effect as the equivalent might in another sport because it is still up to the pitcher to execute that final pitch. Fans can cheer all the want, but if the pitcher grooves a fastball, a big league hitter will still turn on it and drive it 400 feet. Further, keep in mind that baseball is a game of failure. The best hitters in history failed seven out of every ten times at the plate. So when a batter has two strikes on him, the probability of him failing is already incredibly high; the cheering of the crowd "against" him really doesn't push the needle one way or the other.
Ironically, if we examine baseball in other cultures, we will find behavior that might seem unsportsmanlike, but is really traditional to the native land. For example, in Japan, each hitter has his own march that is played/chanted by fans during his turn at bat. This actually will include the use of trumpets and other instruments that might otherwise be seen as distracting. Yet, this is merely to encourage the home team's hitters, especially when the odds are against them (as they are against every hitter). So long as each march is played in accordance with the traditional rules of encouraging a hitter, it seems like this is also acceptable and not immoral in the grand scheme of fandom. (Latin American cultures have very similar practices, as well.)
While we're on the subject of foreign sports, let's go back to soccer (or football) as it relates to the rest of the world. The fans at these events participate in same type of behavior: any sort of singing, chanting, or performing is not done in an attempt to influence the outcome of the game, but rather to encourage the home team. It also creates a sense of unity among fans, which is greatly valued in non-American cultures among sports fans. So the constant annoying sound of the vuvuzela that is heard at a Spanish soccer game is welcome, no matter how much it makes you want to rip your ears off.
Similarly, soccer (or football...I feel like I have to keep saying it) is such an aerobic sport that the play never stops, even when the ball goes out of bounds. Players are so focused that the sound of the crowd rarely affects them, much the same as in baseball. What's very interesting is that both of these sports have such international appeal while also having such intrinsic beauty to the way they are played that it's no wonder their popularity continues to maintain a strong presence in the international community. These two sports are so different, yet they have more in common than you might think.
Speaking of aerobic sports, let's consider basketball and hockey. One of the biggest differences between these two sports and a sport such as baseball is the use of the PA system during play. In baseball, sound effects, music, and other similar things occur when action is not happening, such as in between pitches or in between innings. In basketball and hockey, sometimes the use of the arena's organ occurs while play is live. A basketball player may inbound the ball, and the organist might play something small and simple while the ball is being brought up the court. Gil Imber, the organist for the Anaheim Ducks, might play something while the puck is being secured in the Ducks' defensive zone and about ready to be brought out to mid-ice. So long as the PA system is not specifically being used to distract the players, there's no fault in using it to create atmosphere.
Fans at these events usually don't try to influence a game with the exception of the distraction of a player during free throws in basketball. It has become commonplace for the fans sitting directly behind the basket to attempt to distract an opposing player from making the foul shots he/she gets after being fouled. This is one of customs in fandom that doesn't serve a purpose because it may actually have an effect on the game. A basketball player's ability to shoot free throws should be determined by his athletic skill level, not on the ability of fans to distract him/her. We finally have our first example of poor sportsmanship in our discussion!
Let's consider sports such as tennis or golf. These are sports where silence is required while players play. It is curious to wonder if this is due to the high level of skill required to play either sport, or if this was some sort of "gentleman's agreement" that has been passed down through the ages. Perhaps it is a combination of both, but it begs the interesting question of whether other sports might benefit from this in certain fashions.
Although we could examine plenty of sports, let's end with the re-examination of American football. Fans clearly believe their crowd noise influences the outcome of a game. Players believe it too. In fact, teams have been known to give themselves strategic advantages (both legal and illegal) regarding noise in order to gain a home-field advantage. Some teams have illegally used fake crowd noise over the PA system to make it even more difficult for the opponents to communicate. The Minnesota Vikings have made it known that their new stadium is built in such a way that the acoustics of the building take the sound and reflect it directly into the opponent's sideline, as if a wave of sound was massively dumped on them. Why is this so important?
What's really funny about this is that football is very much like basketball and hockey in that the better teams usually find ways to "muscle" their way to victory. The execution of team skill doesn't always play out the same way, as opposed to a sport like baseball. (And that's not to mention that baseball is the only sport without a clock...you can't "take a knee" in baseball to run out the clock like you can in football: you have to get all 27 outs.) Yet, even though the better teams usually win in football, teams and fans alike feel drawn to using outside factors such as crowd noise to influence the outcome of the game.
This phenomenon has one good conclusion and one bad conclusion.
The good conclusion is that these practices bring fans together and unite them with the team. The nature of fandom is to feel like you, the fan, are part of the team and share equally in every experience. The psychological idea of being associated with the winner is what sports marketing and management uses to create campaigns that increase revenue left and right. Yet, fans eat it up because it gives them a larger cause or movement that unites them. American football is almost as powerful as any religion in the nation as such, which is ironic since it's played on Sunday.
The bad conclusion (and I would argue more important) is that the desire to influence the game as such by fans and with the endorsement of the franchise shows a severe character flaw in the psyche of the team as a whole. It's as if the team is not confident enough in its ability to out-perform the opponent, so they must use any means necessary to achieve victory. Perhaps fans get a pass on this since they don't know any better; it's so easy to be drawn in by the association with your team and your fandom that considering this psychological issue is not even on the radar of most astute fans. But when players encourage fans to support them, or, more importantly, when teams (especially the front office or any of the off-field personnel) encourage this type of behavior with the acoustic design of a stadium or the graphics that get shown on video boards encouraging fans to become boisterous, it makes this writer step back and ask that age old question that has yet to be answered: "Why?"
As a post script note, I ask this follow-up question. Is this the first catalyst into the stereotype of football players being below average when it comes to intelligence? Does this feed into societal norm that only people who aren't smart can play football? The range of questions that can rise from this is infinite, and the proverbial rabbit hole is so deep that it may never end.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.