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Do Human Rights Matter if Sports are Involved?

As a result of Saudi Arabia’s road to sports monopolization, world-renowned sports teams and leagues like Newcastle United and Formula One are now facing a difficult question: Does it matter if they’re linked to a foreign government that violates human rights?


Sports are amazing conversation starters. Athletics bring to mind memories of rec leagues and team bonding, family connections to a team, or that time you had to cope with a heartbreaking loss.

Professional sports can also be a powerful political tool.The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia knows this well, and is desperately trying to get involved in global sports leagues like golf, tennis, horse-racing, and even chess. The Kingdom, currently waging a brutal war in Yemen and having assassinated journalists like Jamal Khashoggi, is now attempting to clean up its image through a process known as “sportswashing”. This term is used to describe when an organization or person tries to distract from controversy through sport.

The Kingdom has inked deals to bring the WWE, boxing, and Formula One into its fold. Recently, it has started its own golf league, LIV Golf, to rival the golfing top dog PGA. This closely follows the purchase of the English Premier League club Newcastle United. Money is being poured by the billions into both bringing major sports events into the nation and financing operations to grow the Kingdom’s presence in other major leagues.

Some will cry foul play. Rival clubs are angry that the big investment in clubs like Newcastle now have a huge new revenue stream waiting to be tapped to shoot them into contention. This will tip the scales in Newcastle's favor now that their coffers are flush with foreign cash. Before being bogged down in lawsuits, LIV Golf was making many in the golf world scared at the sight of new competition. Simply put, more money in teams and leagues gives the Saudi-owned operations an edge over competitors, and who doesn’t want an edge? The nation wants to be an entertainment and sports powerhouse, shifting away from a bad image created through past injustices. Simply put, they’re rebranding.

These dealings have been an elaborate attempt for the nation known for its human rights violations to be seen as nothing more than a home for jolly showmen and fierce competitors. Why ask about the killing of journalists or abuses of women’s rights when fancy race cars are driving fast and fireworks are exploding as title fights come to an end? These attempts are not subtle - they have been covered in both mainstream and sports publications. It’s less an issue of awareness, and more of how the public should react to this now-common knowledge. It’s about action or the lack thereof.

Being a part of a Saudi buyout means big things in terms of winning championships, but comes with its drawbacks. Some Newcastle fans are happy that they are one of the wealthiest clubs, they can afford better players, improve their facilities, and get younger players to come out to the pitch in the black and white. But it also requires fans to refrain from asking questions about where the money comes from and why their club so eagerly accepts it. In a sports landscape that attempts to break new ground in support of the LGBTQ+ community, it seems hypocritical to bathe in money from a country that abuses the same community within their nation’s laws.

Sports leagues have never been known for their ironclad ethical codes. Many fans, including myself, would see their teams risk it all for a win. The classic adage ‘if you aren't cheating, you aren't trying’ still stands. Why does it matter how a team reaches the top of the mountain as long as they can crest the peak? Sports have this aura around them where personal politics should be left at the door in order to engage fans of all backgrounds. The claim of ‘bringing politics into sports’ has long been a rallying cry for those that would rather watch the on-field play than the implications surrounding it. Sports media has come some ways from the infamous shut up and dribble comments, but many sports fans still want the two topics in separate bubbles.

It’s an appealing claim for those who feel that politics and the division of people based on political beliefs have started to infect other aspects of culture. The realm between politics and culture is inseparable now. If Americans must contend and insist that every piece of media and culture is a grand political statement that reveals if the practice has “good” or “bad” politics, sports fans must also contend that the political reality of their teams must be confronted.

The abuses of law and ethics by the Saudi government are clear and egregious, they demand to be confronted by both the teams, leagues, and fans. They cannot be squared away into separate realms, at least as long as culture war talking points reign supreme in political discourse. The issue goes beyond simple sportswashing, which is quite clearly an issue and a brazen attempt to test how many sports fans behave like goldfish. To talk freely and completely about issues of ethics in sports, we must all come to agree that nowadays, entertainment and sport can no longer sit on the sidelines from political discussions as infuriating as that reality may be for many sports fans.

Still, the issue of corrupt investment in sports still stands. I too would like my Tottenham Hotspurs to revive a cash influx and dominate their respective league. However, as large as my trophy drive is, we must all be aware of whom our teams support and what lines they are willing to cross for victory.

Sean Rapley is a first-year Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. He is a Guest Contributor for the American Agora.

Image courtesy: Paul Childs

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