1. It’s not actually possible to separate politics and sport.
2. An all-too-common tactic is for people in power to “pass the buck” on the moral consequences of their decisions to those with less power.
3. Engaging with the ethical discomfort of enjoying any activity with a human cost is our first responsibility.
Estimated reading time 6-12 mins
Lately, I’ve been asked multiple times how I come up with the topics for this blog. Well, let me give you a little glance into how the sausage is made. Last December (2021), I brainstormed a list of roughly 30 topics I thought I could turn into 1,000-2,000 word posts.
I’ve written about many of them, abandoned some of them, and pushed a few down the road, but I have consistently noticed one thing. Through the process of writing one post, I typically find a spark of inspiration for at least one or two others. Even as I write this on Tuesday, November 22nd, I have a list of potential topics stretching out to early April. And, after my adventure returning home from Mexico this past spring led me to unintentionally miss a post, I do my best to stay at least two weeks ahead of schedule. That provides me the opportunity to edit my articles multiple times in an attempt to maintain a high level of quality.
So, you may be wondering…why am I telling you all of this?
Well, it’s because this week’s topic was more spur of the moment. I wanted to make sure this post went out while the 2022 World Cup was still going on, because it will automatically feel less relevant once the final whistle has been blown. Plus, I couldn’t really resist writing about the juicy combination of soccer and moral gray area, could I?
But first, some background
For the unfamiliar, the decision to host the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been…controversial, to say the least. Here is a brief overview of common objections:
- There is strong evidence that bribery led to Qatar securing the rights to host the World Cup…despite the country being too hot to play soccer in the summer when the tournament is typically held
- Qatar has a highly troubling human rights record, including the criminalization of homosexuality and laws preventing women from leaving their homes without being accompanied by a man.
- A strong outcry has been raised over the treatment of migrant workers responsible for building World Cup stadiums and infrastructure, with brutal working conditions and a (disputed) death toll that may number in the thousands.
- There is a potentially enormous carbon footprint associated with the tournament (though this is not unique to Qatar).
While a deeper dive into the geopolitical factors that combined to allow Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup is outside the scope of this piece, I highly recommend checking out the excellent FIFA Uncovered documentary on Netflix if you’re interested in learning more.
As a result of the above issues, many people have raised the possibility of boycotting the tournament, a suggestion that no country’s FA (Football Association) seemed to take seriously. Unlike the 1980 Olympics, when 65 different nations refused to participate, no country that qualified for Qatar 2022 realistically considered declining to attend. In response, many soccer fans floated the idea of not watching this year’s tournament, or at least, voiced their discomfort in doing so.
So, what’s the verdict?
Well, this is a tricky one. Recall from last month’s piece about identity that no single act can make you a good or a bad person. Unlike in The Good Place, there isn’t an invisible points system whose tally pushes our lives into definitively “good” or “bad” territory. In fact, subconsciously believing this to be the case can lead us to diminish, justify, or even outrightly deny when our actions have caused harm to others.
With that in mind…no, watching the Qatar 2022 World Cup does not make you a bad person.
But, is choosing to engage with these games morally complicated? Absolutely. As we more thoroughly explore why that’s the case, let’s first put one tired argument to rest. “Politics and sports shouldn’t mix.”
In reality, you can’t separate politics and sport.
Many people will say some form of the above quotation in an attempt to shut down any discussion around ethical issues in athletic events. And to be fair, I totally understand this instinct. Sports are both fun and an escape from the “real world.” Many of us love them at least in part because they conjure up memories of simpler times we enjoyed as children, when we could express joy through physical movement, competition, and camaraderie.
When you’re out there chasing a ball around, or watching the best in the world do so, it’s an opportunity to set your problems aside and lose yourself completely. Such chances are relatively rare these days. So, I don’t blame anybody for an initial reaction of wanting to stick their head in the sand, drown out the noise, and focus on something they love.
However, this is a relatively naive stance to take. Nothing in this world exists in a vacuum, and as much as we might want players to “shut up and dribble,” we can’t pretend that it’s even possible to engage with something as globally influential as soccer without considering issues like the following:
- Where does the money come from to fund player salaries?
- How are the workers in less developed nations who make the kits and equipment treated?
- What is being done to ensure player safety and wellbeing?
Like it or not, questions like this involve politics and human rights.
Let’s consider the following series of events.
An early 1990’s decision by the British government to ban standing terraces in soccer stadiums helped lead to the creation of the English Premier League. All-seater stadiums helped foster a safer, more family-friendly image, so the league quickly grew and attracted foreign investment.
One of the first high-profile foreign investors was a Russian oligarch named Roman Abramovich, who built his wealth through…a government decision to award him lucrative energy contracts. His massive success with Chelsea F.C. led to gulf petrostates like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia pursuing ownership of well-supported European football clubs to bolster their respective images abroad. The logical next step was bidding for the rights to hold global sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup.
Still think you can separate sport and politics?
For a look at just how intertwined some of these issues are, I’d highly encourage you to check out Tifo Football’s fantastic The Qatar World Cup Explained YouTube series.
I’m not innocent here, either
Now, lest I come across as the self-appointed arbiter of truth and justice, I want to share something that occurred to me while listening to a recent podcast about Qatar 2022. The various hosts and guests were sharing their reasons regarding how much they planned to engage with the tournament, and it occurred to me that despite any number of eloquent opinions expressed about the moral gray area, there was one unifying factor. It was a desire to be able to watch one of your favorite things on the planet, which only comes around on a handful of occasions during a lifetime, without feeling morally compromised.
This certainly applies to me. So, please keep this in mind as I do my best to paraphrase an argument from Jon Mackenzie of the Tifo Football Podcast. I largely agree with him, but I also am undoubtedly motivated by a simple desire to be able to enjoy the World Cup. I can accept the reality that some people may frown upon doing so. That is their right, and I need to be okay with that rather than try to change their minds.
Bribestyles of the rich and famous
Mackenzie’s argument began with him agreeing with a co-host who expressed frustration that certain people portrayed players as hypocritical for speaking out about the human rights issues of the Qatar 2022 World Cup, yet still planned to play in the tournament.
His point was that it was unfair to hold the players morally responsible for the consequences of holding the World Cup in Qatar just because of our desire to hold someone responsible. Members of the FIFA Executive Committee were the ones who actually made this decision. Further, politicians from various world governments held the actual power to potentially alter where and when this tournament would be held, yet the collective response from said leaders was something akin to, “Well, (shrugs) the decision to hold the tournament here was already made. What can we do about it now?”
Mackenzie astutely pointed out that when those in power refuse to accept responsibility for their decisions, they only get away with it when the “moral buck” is passed down the line to those with less power. In this case, that’s the players. He argued that while he wishes players would use their status and platform to speak up and take action about every instance of injustice and oppression, they don’t have a moral imperative to do so. What’s really needed is greater accountability and consequences for those who make decisions like this one.
While I broadly agree with him, I acknowledge that for some, this stance may come uncomfortably close to the “I was just following orders” defense. I imagine that everyone has a threshold at which they would boycott a tournament like this. For example, suppose the host nations of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups had been reversed. Would some players and teams have boycotted a Russia 2022 World Cup after the invasion of Ukraine? I’d like to hope so. It sure seems likely that the pressure to do so would have been far greater, anyway.
So, where does this leave us fans?
You may be wondering what any of us, as individuals, can actually do. The uncomfortable answer is, probably not a whole lot.
However, sitting with that discomfort can be a powerful first step. Refuse to bury your head in the proverbial sand, and allow yourself to ponder the reality that people died building the stadiums in which the matches you’re watching are played. Acknowledging this won’t change anything, but it’s better than pretending it didn’t happen, don’t you think?
Here’s an example that should provide more food for thought but less discomfort. In the book, Luminous Darkness, by Buddhist teacher Deborah Eden Tull, we find a seemingly unrelated topic that is strangely appropriate given the source of Qatar’s wealth.
“We perceive fossil fuels solely as a resource to consume, rather than the stored deep dark transformed light of the sun and all organic life. Oil is a sacred remembrance, the condensed energy of all animals and photosynthesizing plant forms that lived and died on planet Earth.”
I had certainly never viewed our main power source that way, and surely none of us hold any blame for the deaths of plants and animals that existed millions of years ago. However, recognizing that that is indeed what the substance we use for fuel is made of can lead to a sense of gratitude and humility.
Gratitude and Humility
Those are probably two characteristics with which to approach almost anything we enjoy engaging with, not least a soccer tournament conducted at great human cost. An additional suggestion I’ve come across is to donate to Amnesty International. This non-profit organization helped abolish Qatar’s kafala labor system, which gave the employers of migrant workers the power to deport them if they tried to change jobs.
For me, perhaps a good rule of thumb for engaging with the tournament would be to donate as much as I’d spend on a year’s subscription to Peacock and The Athletic, the two outlets through which I consume a vast majority of my World Cup coverage. I’m not sure yet. I’m going to continue to see how I feel throughout the tournament.
For you, what you’re comfortable with may look completely different, and you may decide not to watch any games or read any coverage. As long as we’ve considered our choices and refused to ignore the sacrifices of those who made this event possible, we can probably feel at least neutral about engaging with Qatar 2022. And sometimes, when we get a look at “how the sausage is made,” that’s the best we can do.
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you! How much of the tournament have you watched? What’s your take on the ethical issues that come with this tournament? Reply to this email and let me know!