Athletes knock the legs from under global sports governance
By James M. Dorsey
Sports governance worldwide has had the legs knocked out from under it. Yet, national and international sports administrators are slow in realizing the magnitude of what has hit them.
Tectonic plates underlying sports’ guiding principle that sports and politics are unrelated have shifted, driven by a struggle against racism and a quest for human rights and social justice.
The principle was repeatedly challenged over the last year by athletes as well as businesses forcing national and international sports federations to either support anti-racist protest or at the least refrain from penalizing athletes who use their sport to oppose racism and promote human rights and social justice, acts that are political by definition.
The assault on what is a convenient fiction started in the United States as much a result of the explosion of Black Lives Matter protests on the streets of American cities as the fact that, in contrast to the fan-club relationship in much of the world, US sports clubs and associations see fans as clients, and the client is king.
The assault moved to Europe in the last month with the national soccer teams of Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands wearing T-shirts during 2022 World Cup qualifiers that supported human rights and change. The Europeans were adding their voices to perennial criticism of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar, the host of next year’s World Cup.
Gareth Southgate, manager of the English national team, said the Football Association was discussing with human rights group Amnesty International tackling migrant rights in the Gulf state.
While Qatar is the focus in Europe, greater sensitivity to human rights appears to be moving beyond. Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton told a news conference in Bahrain ahead of this season’s opening Grand Prix that “there are issues all around the world, but I do not think we should be going to these countries and just ignoring what is happening in those places, arriving, having a great time and then leave.”
Mr. Hamilton has been prominent in speaking out against racial injustice and social inequality since the National Football League in the United States endorsed Black Lives Matter and players taking the knee during the playing of the American national anthem in protest against racism.
In a dramatic break with its ban on “any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images” on the pitch, world soccer governing body FIFA said it would not open disciplinary proceedings against the European players. “FIFA believes in the freedom of speech and in the power of football as a force for good,” a spokesperson for the governing body said.
The statement constituted an implicit acknowledgement that standing up for human rights and social justice was inherently political. It raises the question of how FIFA going forward will reconcile its stand on human rights with its statutory ban on political expression.
It makes maintaining the fiction of a separation of politics and sports ever more difficult to defend and opens the door to a debate on how the inseparable relationship that joins sports and politics at the hip like Siamese twins should be regulated.
Signalling that a flood barrier may have collapsed, Major League Baseball this month said it would be moving its 2021 All Star Game out of Atlanta in response to a new Georgia law that threatens to potentially restrict voting access for people of colour.
In a shot across the bow to FIFA and other international sports associations, major Georgia-headquartered companies, including Coca Cola, one of the soccer body’s longest-standing corporate sponsors, alongside Delta Airlines and Home Depot adopted political positions in their condemnation of the Georgia law.
The greater assertiveness of athletes and corporations in speaking out for fundamental rights and against racism and discrimination will make it increasingly difficult for sports associations to uphold the fiction of a separation between politics and sports.
The willingness of FIFA, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and other national and international associations to look the other way when athletes take their support for rights and social justice to the sports arena has let a genie out of the bottle. It has sawed off the legs of the FIFA principle that players’ “equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans.”
Already, the US committee has said that it would not sanction American athletes who choose to raise their fists or kneel on the podium at this July’s Tokyo Olympic Games as well as future tournaments.
The decision puts the USOPC at odds with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) staunch rule against political protest.
The IOC suspended and banned US medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos after the sprinters raised their fists on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to protest racial inequality in the United States.
Acknowledging the incestuous relationship between sports and politics will ultimately require a charter or code of conduct that regulates the relationship and introduces some form of independent oversight akin to the supervision of banking systems or the regulation of the water sector in Britain, alongside the United States the only country to have privatized water as an asset.
Human rights and social justice have emerged as monkey wrenches that could shatter the myth of a separation of sports and politics. If athletes take their protests to the Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the myth would sustain a significant body blow.
Said a statement by US athletes seeking changes to the USOPC’s rule banning protest at sporting events: “Prohibiting athletes to freely express their views during the Games, particularly those from historically underrepresented and minoritized groups, contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute as well as an Honorary Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Eye on ISIS.