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Athletes Shake Up Sports Governance

Acknowledging the relationship between sports and politics will require a charter that regulates it and introduces some form of independent oversight.
Sports and politics, FIFA, 2022 World Cup, human rights, human rights Qatar, migrant rights Qatar, Lewis Hamilton, Qatar 2022 World Cup, sports news, James M. Dorsey

The Aspire Tower and Khalifa International Football Stadium in Doha, Qatar on 3/26/2018. © Harmony Video Production / Shutterstock

April 14, 2021 10:30 EDT

Sports governance worldwide has had its 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 the 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 NBA Is Conflicted Over National Symbols


The principle was repeatedly challenged over the last year by athletes and businesses forcing national and international sports federations to either support anti-racist protest or, at the very least, refrain from penalizing those 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 that sports and politics do not mix started in the US. This was not only the result of Black Lives Matter protests on US streets, but also the fact that, in contrast to the fan-club relationship in most of the world, American sports clubs and associations see fans as clients — and the client is king.

From Football to F1

The assault moved to Europe in the last month with the national football teams of Norway, Germany and the Netherlands wearing T-shirts during qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup that supported human rights and change. The European sides added their voices to perennial criticism of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar, the host of next year’s World Cup. Gareth Southgate, the manager of the English national team, said the Football Association was discussing migrant rights in the Gulf state with Amnesty International.

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.” Hamilton has been prominent in speaking out against racial injustice and social inequality since the National Football League in the US endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement and players taking the knee during the playing of the American national anthem in protest against racism.

Embed from Getty Images

In a dramatic break with its ban on “any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images” on the pitch, FIFA, the governing body of world football, said it would not open disciplinary proceedings against the European players who wore the T-shirts. “FIFA believes in the freedom of speech and in the power of football as a force for good,” a spokesperson said.

The statement constituted an implicit acknowledgment that standing up for human rights and social justice was inherently political. It raises the question of how FIFA will reconcile its stand on human rights with its statutory ban on political expression. It makes maintaining the fiction of a separation between politics and sports ever more difficult to defend. It also 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.

Georgia’s Voting Law

Signaling 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 law in the US state of Georgia that threatens to potentially restrict voting access for people of color. In a shot across the bow to FIFA and other international sports associations, major companies headquartered in Georgia, including Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines and Home Depot, adopted political positions in their condemnation of the Georgia voting 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 the 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 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) strict rule against political protest. The IOC suspended and banned US medalists 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 it and introduces some form of independent oversight. This could be something akin to the supervision of banking systems or the regulation of the water sector in Britain, which, alongside the United States, holds privatized water as an asset.

Human rights and social justice have emerged as monkey wrenches that could shatter the myth of a separation between sports and politics. If athletes take their protests to the Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 World Cup, the myth would sustain a significant body blow. In December 2020, a statement by US athletes seeking changes to the USOPC’s rule banning protest at sporting events said: “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.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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