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Boycotts, a tainted World Cup, and the role of athletes in society

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar forced us to answer an age old question in sports: What is the role of footballers and athletes in society?

FBL-WC-2022-MIGRANTS Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

One of the most controversial and political World Cups in recent history came to an end earlier this month. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I don’t need to tell you why it was so controversial and why people were so upset about it.

But as we look back at this troubling (but wildly entertaining) event, I think it’s important to talk about a different topic that came out of this World Cup. It’s not a new topic, but it’s probably one of the most unresolved ones in the history of sports. Namely, what is the role of footballers and athletes in society? What is the responsibility of individual footballers to act and speak out on controversial issues that go beyond football?

There was also the threat of people boycotting the event, and although this never happened, I also want to briefly discuss why boycotts are so (logistically) difficult to execute and why I believe that, at the end of the day, this means that threats to boycott future events similar to the Qatar World Cup are likely empty threats.

The logistics of boycotts

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the word “boycott” originated in the 1870s thanks to the actions of a British army captain by the name of Charles Cunningham Boycott. When Boycott tried to evict Irish tenant farmers because they refused to pay their rent, the farmers, laborers, and servants all quit in protest. Given the name of the man they were protesting against, the word “boycott” became associated with one of the most important words in social activism.

The problem is that people don’t understand just how difficult boycotts are to successfully carry out. While there are many reasons that boycotts fail, one of the most significant factors is the lack of coordination. The best example of how a lack of coordination leads to inefficient results is the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is a story that everyone who has taken introductory economics classes should know about. I think this video does a good job of explaining what it is, so I won’t explain it in detail here.

The moral of that story, though, and why many boycotts fail, is this: if I don’t know what you are doing and you don’t know what I’m doing, how can we ever successfully carry out a boycott together? In similar fashion, many European and Western countries talked about boycotting the World Cup, but the problem was that they didn’t know (or bother to find out) if the rest of the world felt the same way (unfortunately, many countries didn’t), thus making it impossible to effectively coordinate a boycott. And even if the rest of the world did, how could you enforce everyone to actually boycott the event? You’re basically taking their good word for it that they’ll do so.

Argentina v France: Final - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The irony is that at a time in which it’s easier than ever to communicate thanks to the Internet, we’re so terribly disconnected and often out of touch with our fellow human beings.

This is why I unfortunately think that threats of boycotting future controversial tournaments are probably empty threats. Coordinating a critical mass of people across the country/continent/world to take the same action is just really, really difficult.

I mean, the world could barely agree on the seriousness of a global pandemic when thousands of people were dying every single day.

The role of athletes in society

In an interview before the 2022 World Cup started, France goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris presented one side of the argument of what the role of footballers is in society. He said the following:

“There’s too much pressure on the players. We are at the bottom of the chain. If you have to apply pressure, first of all it had to be 10 years ago. Now it’s too late. You have to understand that for players this opportunity happens every four years and you want every chance to succeed. The focus has to be on the field. The rest is for politicians. We are athletes.”

He’s not the only one on this side of the discussion. In the fantastic 2016 documentary Les Bleus une autre histoire de France, former French President François Hollande seemed to agree with Lloris’ overall argument:

“I think we should have a rule. Politicians shouldn’t dictate what the team does, nor should football players dictate the country’s politics. To each his own place.”

Curiously, the debate about athletes’ social responsibilities has an almost exact equivalent in the business world. One of the most well-known proponents of this argument of “to each his own place” is the late Nobel Laureate and famous economist Milton Friedman.

On Sept. 13, 1970, Friedman published what remains one of the most impactful and polarizing essays on the social responsibilities of business in the New York Times. The title basically summarizes his opinion: “The Social Responsibility Of Business Is to Increase its Profits.”

While I disagree with the overall principle of his argument (mostly because of the devastating consequences it has had on society, essentially blessing corporations to disregard society’s interests because, hey, if a Nobel Prize-winning economist said it, it must be OK) I admit that he has some well-argued points. One of them, which relates to this discussion, is the following:

“[The corporate executive] is told that he must contribute to fighting inflation. How is he to know what action of his will contribute to that end? He is presumably an expert in running his company—in producing a product or selling it or financing it. But nothing about his selection makes him an expert on inflation.”

Friedman is basically saying that since businesses aren’t experts in social issues but, rather, are experts in making great products and maximizing profits, we shouldn’t ask them to be responsible for things that we require our governments to be responsible (who are experts on social/political issues). Likewise, one could argue that we shouldn’t “employ” athletes and other celebrities to do/advocate for things that they’re not experts in (like cryptocurrency).

At risk of it sounding like I’m picking sides, and while I disagree with Friedman on many parts of his “the business is business is business” theory, I think this part of his argument is quite persuasive. To bring it back to sports, footballers (presumably) don’t have the time to read in depth studies about the geopolitics of the Middle East, the War on Drugs, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and other similarly controversial topics.

They don’t meet with committees and foreign ambassadors and probably aren’t trained in political science, so it’s completely unfair to force them to tell us which side is right or wrong, pick a side, and/or tell the world which side they’re on.

France Press Conference - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Photo by Heuler Andrey/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

On the other side of the spectrum, people believe that, especially in this day and age of mass social media followings of both individuals and organizations, players have a moral obligation to use these huge platforms to speak out on important social issues such as human rights, minority rights, inequality, and so on. They argue that given how many people watch football and follow teams and athletes, how could you not use your platform as a force for good?

Furthermore, since so many people nowadays are disengaged from politics and, instead, look to athletes and celebrities as role models, there’s a greater burden on them to fill that hole and be social advocates.

Normative versus descriptive perspectives

So, to give a thoroughly unsatisfying answer to the original question of what the role of athletes in society is ... it depends. It depends on if we’re answering the question from a normative or descriptive perspective.

From a normative perspective we would ask what their roles in society should be. Normative questions are, by their nature, impossible to answer correctly because they’re subjective and a matter of a person’s morals and ethics.

In general, though, it seems that most people demand the role of athletes in society to be one in which they don’t just stay in their lanes of “I’m only an athlete; that’s it.” Instead, we demand them to be and say more and act as role models on political and social issues. They should be more than just athletes because so many people follow and look up to them.

But then we have thoughts from people like Milton Friedman who believe that it’s inefficient to have businesses or, in my example, players get involved in things that they’re not experts in or were hired to do.

From a descriptive perspective though — i.e. what does the data show us and how do athletes actually behave — it’s a mixed bag. Some players embrace their roles as athletes and political/social advocates, with some going as far as endorsing political candidates in elections, others passionately fighting for LGBTQ rights, and a countless number of players starting foundations* to help people in need. But then you have players like Lloris and politicians like Hollande who stay firmly in their lane and stick to what they do best: footballers play football, politicians are public servants.

* Because I worked in the nonprofit world for a few years and I wrote about this in my first book, I feel the need to say this: we don’t need more foundations, especially private ones. There are far too many foundations and nonprofits out there that compete for the same (usually non-growing) pool of money, so the more foundations and nonprofits we have, the less money there is for each one. I’ve always preferred/recommended starting a donor-advised fund at an existing foundation or just teaming up with one that’s already doing what you do. I wish players/rich people would understand that no, you’re not the first/only one to come up with a nonprofit to fight homelessness or poverty. Ok, rant over.

At the end of the day, I have no authority to dictate what athletes’ roles and responsibilities are beyond football. I can definitely sympathize with Lloris’ perspective while Friedman’s argument is definitely persuasive. It’s also problematic when players are uninformed on incredibly nuanced and controversial issues but then provide uneducated opinions on them that end up doing more harm than good to the debate.

That said, it’s hard for me, on an emotional level, to accept that athletes are just athletes and that they should simply “shut up and dribble.” Moreover, based on my professional experience in community organizing, working for a nonprofit, and advocating for legislation in the state that I live in, I know what a massive impact it makes when a person with a big following gets behind a particular movement or piece of legislation.

Whatever the answer might be, I hope that I at least demonstrated how difficult this debate is and that this piece will help you have more empathetic and nuanced discussions on the topic in the future.

Because at the end of the day, we’re all just people trying to figure out this weird thing called life. So we should probably be nice to each other in the process.