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.