A follow up discussion to an increasingly hot topic.
I’ll say it again for those in the back or those who have just joined us:
“How much are your ethics worth?”
It was nearly two years ago to the day that I wrote, “Ethical Sponsorship in Sport”, which I’ve watched steadily increase in viewership (especially in the last 12 months) to where it is my third most successful article. More and more people seem to be interested in the subject so I thought it would be worth revisiting for a fresh discussion.
In my original article I talked about a lot about what type of sponsors have been attracted and marketed through sport, a shift in thinking towards corporate social responsibility (CSR), advertising, negative side effects and what is it exactly that we want from our sporting codes and athletes. I’ll keep the doubling up to a minimum so I encourage you to read that piece at the link above.
“Is sport the new opium of the masses that religion once was?”
In this article, it may be appropriate to widen the topic to ethical business dealings or ownership in sport, as it will focus on the recent LIV-PGA merger in professional golf which came out of nowhere, the discussions around “oil money” particularly in world football and Formula 1, and the general increase in activism across sports – some of which run counter to where the money comes from.
I’m not going to lie, I personally have zero interest in professional golf and play it once in a blue moon, but even I was surprised when I heard that the Saudi-back LIV Golf had struck a deal to effectively merge with PGA. In what seems a total 180 given their recent history of competing against one another, legal battles and moral concerns, this now enables LIV-Golf players to play on the PGA tour, amongst other things (that I’m sure we’ll know with more specificity in due time).
Tiger Woods, who last year turned down an insanely lucrative deal to join LIV-Golf – somewhere in the region of $700-800m – is not the most ethical man on the planet given his past problems with infidelity, but you could make the case he could claim the moral high ground over the PGA in this regard. What really stinks of hypocrisy, however, is that the PGA Commissioner, Jay Monahan had previously claimed the moral high ground against those defecting to LIV-Golf, inciting the 9/11 atrocity in the process, but now it seems fine to deal with the Saudis. This merger has even generated political attention which is unlikely to go away any time soon.
“If people never did business with the unethical no one would do business.”
Professional golf is another sport which has been accused of “sportswashing”, call it an ethical cleansing through sport investment and ownership, a moral right to clean away moral wrongs. “Oil money” or Petrodollars from the Middle East run deep in world football and Formula 1 also. It’s not news to state that these Middle East countries are not fighting for number one on the Human Rights list, but their astonishing concentrated wealth has enabled them to do wonders in the sporting world.
Manchester City, owned by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, recently completed the treble of FA Cup, Premier League and Champions League, but they also have to contend with an enormous legal battle as the EPL’s 100+ charges of alleged financial wrongdoing and failing to co-operate with their investigation hang like a guillotine over the Etihad. The whole of Manchester might become Middle-Eastern as the United takeover swings into high gear with interest from a Qatari Sheikh.
My beloved Newcastle United have recently been bought out by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, and the oil money on Tyneside has propelled us to first Champions League appearance in 20 years – which I can’t say I’m not stoked about. Obviously it’s not just the money, but there’s no denying that the injection of funds has put us in a position to succeed at the highest level – and I’m not ignorant of where/who the money is coming from. I’ve had people say to me that I should stop supporting my club given the new ownership, but after nearly 30 years of support, it’s been kind of nice to see a sense of optimism, hope and good football around the club for the first time in a long while, and I love my club which I’d struggle to give up regardless.
It's not like this is new to the EPL, for years Roman Abramovich operated Chelsea without anyone kicking up a fuss. It wasn’t until Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine that the Russian oligarch was sanctioned by the British Government and forced to sell the club – although given Chelsea’s performance fans would probably wish for Roman to be back instead of Todd Boehly!
Let’s take it back to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, mired in worker deaths controversy and living standards swept under rug/glossed over. Many believed the amount of worker deaths to be understated, as it was given around 40, with some suggesting thousands had really died. Eventually an official bumped it up to 400-500, but what the true cost of hosting in air conditioned stadiums in the sand to play a round ball game for a shit-tonne of money we’ll never really know. Athletes/Celebrities such as David Beckham who were used in advertising Qatar WC were heavily scrutinised. Players were also not allowed to wear pro-LGBT armbands.
Before we go any further I will say this, the West is not without their ethical dilemmas either – this is not a Middle East hate party – and I’m not just paying lip service to that, just take a look at all the corporate platitudes during PRIDE month, for example.
However, you go to non-Western countries and expect to impose your Western views on them, there’s a good chance they may do or say things that run counter to prevailing Western attitudes. So, do we just not hold events there? Unlikely. So, animosity will remain and conflicts/tensions every time an event is held, especially with team America still trying to be the world’s police.
“Wealthy people just want to get wealthier and us poor people just want to watch good sport.”
There is a strong element of “well, this is just how sport is done nowadays”, and at the end of the day if I didn’t watch F1 or EPL or golf no one would give a shit. The money will keep exchanging hands and the deals will keep getting made, but eventually they’ll run themselves into the ground. European football saw that with the failed Super League, and you could make the case that F1 is killing itself (for a number of reasons).
As impressive an engineering feat as building the F1 track in Jeddah in eight months was, the “we race as one” slogan doesn’t seem to match the destination – “It’s rights out and away we go!”, Crofty wouldn’t say. Like golf now, F1 has a strong USA-Middle East tie, thanks to FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem and F1’s owners, Liberty Media Corporation. Saudi Arabia has a sizeable involvement in F1 already. Besides the grand prix in Jeddah, the state oil company, Aramco, is also a global partner for F1.
“So, do we forget the ethics class/morality game, and just play sport?”
While there are plenty of people who “just want to watch the sport”, it seems as if the “Activist-Athlete” is here to stay. It’s not like sport hasn’t done this before, there have been many moments across the history of sports which can be linked to things beyond sports like civil rights movements. There is an expectation now for athletes to be active in social justice causes or at least have awareness and knowledge of such things. Here’s a few pertinent questions:
Do we want our sporting codes to be the moraliser?
Does sport suffer from activism?
Will the dollars be the dictator?
Will corporations/ownership groups have a genuine look at themselves and their practices or is this just another chance for them to tell the world how good they think they are or utilise misdirection/feigning ignorance?
One of my favourite ads is Charles Barkley’s “I am not a role model”, for many reasons. Ethics requires a critical look at the athlete/sport as much as the sponsors – i.e. athletes demanding this-that-and-the-other from sporting bodies, corporations etc. when they themselves wouldn’t pass the test. Chuck has never pretended to be someone who he isn’t, and I love his realness for that. However, I feel a lot of athletes are “useful idiots” when it comes to matters of an ethical persuasion.
To take something incredibly complex and to put it simply, I guess it really does come down to: “How much are your ethics worth?”