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Can Sport have a Conscience?

✦ After what feels like an eternity of pre-tournament debate, analysis and criticism, the FIFA World Cup finally kicks off in Qatar on November 20.

It is arguably one of the most controversial major sporting events to ever take place, which has stoked fierce debate over the role of morality in sport. In an ideal world the age-old saying that “sports and politics don’t mix” sits comfortably. However, we all know we do not live in an ideal world and that, subsequently, those lines are frequently blurred, none more so than with the football extravaganza due to take place in the desert.

As much of the world community continues to realign its moral compass it is becoming increasingly challenging for subjects that usually belong in a government debate, court house or human rights discussion not to infringe on sports. As a result, the very conscience of sports becomes a viable discussion.

What does that mean? Can sport even have a conscience?

World Cup 2022, the most controversial major sporting events to ever take place | Brilliant-Online
World Cup 2022, the most controversial major sporting events to ever take place | Photo: Getty

If we throw sports and politics into the wash together, it is inevitable that the colours run and the very conscience of sports, if there is such a thing, comes under the microscope. This then throws up a myriad of questions such as should players, teams and countries adopt and stick to an ethical stance? Should they boycott altogether? Should certain products, companies or countries be barred from being involved in sports? How far are we willing to look away when money trounces morality and principle? Does it even really matter?

Well, yes, of course it matters. Or at least it should matter. However, large-scale events such as the Qatar World Cup undermine this to an extent never witnessed before.

‘Damage in the mind’

The World Cup comes around every four years and is the pinnacle of the beautiful game. Teams representing 32 nations from all four corners of the planet come together for a month-long football fiesta, with this edition running from from November 20 to December 18. It is usually a time to celebrate and embrace the finer points of the most popular sport on earth, as the world’s elite players convene to wow and delight an audience of billions watching around the world.

However, the sentiment going into this World Cup feels measurably different, out of whack, off point; put simply, just not right. Controversy has dogged the occasion since the tournament was awarded to the tiny Gulf state in 2010.

Allegations of bribery between the Qatar bid committee and FIFA members and executives have rumbled on in the background and huge questions have been raised about human rights, particularly regarding the two million migrant workers who were brought in to assemble the gleaming new stadiums, mostly from the likes of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and other South Asian countries. The Guardian reports that in the last 10 years over 6,500 of these workers have died due to poor health and unsafe working conditions in extreme heat, having gone years without seeing their families.

The sentiment was very strong at the World Cup in Qatar this year | Brilliant-Online
The sentiment was very strong at the World Cup in Qatar this year | Photo: Getty

Qatar’s stance on homosexuality as an illegal act has raised major concerns, especially as FIFA continually promotes the game as one accessible to all, regardless of gender, race, religion, etc. Organisers have constantly quashed any concerns by publicly stating everyone was welcome to their country for the tournament. However, recent comments during an interview with German TV by former Qatari player and current World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman that homosexuality was “damage in the mind” seemed to undermine this and suggest a darker undercurrent of opinion. Critics argue the World Cup is being used as just another cog in the country’s sport washing wheel, the practice of an individual, group, corporation, or nation-state using a major or prestigious international sport to improve its reputation. Money is a crucial factor in this dynamic and Qatar has plenty of it, as do fellow countries in the region. Major international events such as boxing and Formula One have become fixtures on the sporting calendar in Saudi Arabia for some time now, despite the country’s abhorrent human rights record. Add in the breakaway LIV Golf tour, which the Saudi government's Public Investment Fund (PIF) backs with eye-watering financial prizes for participants, let alone winners. The PIF also took control of famous English Premier League football club Newcastle United last year which caused widespread disdain.

Money talks

Money often equates to power by providing a certain freedom and license to operate and manipulate, something that is blatantly evident with the Qatar World Cup. Despite a huge personal fortune, even global megastar David Beckham wasn’t averse to the financial advances of the Qatari organisers who paid the former England captain £150 million to promote the tournament in a positive light. This enraged many, not least the LGBTQ+ community who lambasted ‘Goldenballs’ for placing his bank account ahead of his principles.

Then organisers announced they were recruiting up to 400 fans and influencers from 60 nations for an all-expenses-paid trip in exchange for positive social media coverage. The fans must adhere to a ‘code of conduct’ while in Qatar and must not “disparage” the country or the World Cup in any way. If this isn’t veering into the dangerous territory of control and conditioning of behaviour, perception and truth by money over morals then it comes as close as one can imagine.

Influencer Inviting is a special way to promote this year's World Cup | Brilliant-Online
Influencer Inviting is a special way to promote this year's World Cup | Photo: Getty

There have been empassioned protests, with campaign groups such as Amnesty International lobbying FIFA to drop the choice of venue and businesses, individuals and fans outright boycotting the event on a global scale. The Guardian reports how the likes of Barcelona and Paris are among multiple European cities that will not show World Cup matches in public places or set up “fan zones” and how giant banners declaring “Boycott Qatar 2022” have been a familiar sight at European grounds for months. The response of FIFA President Gianni Infantino to all this was merely that teams should “focus on the football”.

With such an unprecedented kick back by stakeholders, one would hope that the conscience of sports is recognised and heard. However, sadly, it seems highly unlikely. Players wearing rainbow coloured laces or armbands, or kits being modified to demonstrate a stance of protest is admirable but ultimately appears to become futile gestures.

‘A Real Priority’

Morality in sport is something we have seen much closer to home too, with Australian cricket captain Pat Cummins recently voicing his opinions on the team’s sponsorship choices. Cummins, a known climate activist who spearheads the Cricket for Climate initiative, made headlines when he criticised Alinta Energy, who have been principal sponsors for the past four years and have reputedly poured in around $40 million to the sport.

Cummins is reported to have taken issue with the energy provider’s parent company Pioneer Sail Holdings, one of Australia's biggest carbon emitters and stated publicly that he will not be an ambassador for the company moving forward.

“I think the most obvious, front-of-mind things you can see is who we partner with,” he said when it was announced the energy giant was set to extend their sponsorship deal. “So I hope that when we think of who we want to align with, who we want to invite into being part of cricket, I hope climate is a real priority.” Cricket Australia confirmed that the deal with Alinta will end in June 2023 although it did not specify whether the influence of Cummins was a deciding factor.

Choices and agreements with Football Sponsors become closely linked to those Teams | Brilliant-Online
Choices and agreements with Sponsors become closely linked to those Teams

We also recently witnessed protests from Australian netball players objecting against a $15 million sponsorship deal with mining and agricultural business Hancock Prospecting. The iron ore miner, headed by Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart, had previously stated that climate change is not a man-made phenomenon, something former Australian captain Sharni Norder says is very much at odds with the values of the team.

There was further controversy given that the company’s founder, Rinehart’s father, the late Lang Hancock, had suggested in 1984 that Indigenous Australians should be sterilised to “breed themselves out” in coming years. Indigenous player Donnell Wallam stated that she refused to wear the company’s logo on her kit, something her teammates fully supported and that is consistent with the Diamonds’ motto of the past decade, ‘sisters in arms’.

Whereas admirable from a moral stance, it does place the sport in a dilemma as reports suggest there are debts of anywhere between $4-7 million with a 2023 deadline for repayment. The Hancock deal would eliminate all debts and set a platform for future growth. However, is this even a factor if the key stakeholders, the players, are uneasy and at odds from an ethical and moral standpoint?

Donnell Wallam stated that she refused to wear the company’s logo on her kit | Brilliant-Online
Donnell Wallam stated that she refused to wear the company’s logo on her kit | Photo: Getty

“It becomes a moral issue versus your financial situation, and that dilemma is going to be different for every individual in that side, so that's really tough to solve,” commented former Aussie cricket captain Mark Taylor recently. In conclusion, the reality is that more often than not the show will go on irrespective of the political or ethical connotations or moral fallout. From the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, through to Colin Kaepernick and the recent Black Lives Matter movement, sport will continue to raise ethical questions but change is miniscule.

Let’s not forget China hosted the Winter Olympics earlier this year despite a horrendous human rights record. Saudi Arabia and natural resource-rich countries will continue their sports washing campaign. The football in Qatar this week will be beamed across the world from sparkly new stadiums in the desert packed with seemingly jovial fans, be their smiles paid for or not. In an industry whose very ethos is built on fairness and equality, money is the key driver nowadays and that will always tilt the balance of any equation in a particular favour – even that of the conscience of sports.


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