Jock Talk: If you believe in human rights, do not watch the World Cup

  • by Roger Brigham, BAR Contributor
  • Friday November 11, 2022
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With Qatar set to host the 2022 World Cup, participants display placards as LGBTQ+ associations protest in front of the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich, Switzerland November 8, 2022. Photo: Courtesy Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
With Qatar set to host the 2022 World Cup, participants display placards as LGBTQ+ associations protest in front of the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich, Switzerland November 8, 2022. Photo: Courtesy Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann

For the first time in four decades, I will not watch a single minute of the men's soccer World Cup. Not one vuvuzela-shrieking minute.

I love the beautiful game, but despise the foundation of never-ending abuse, excess, corruption, exploitation, and discrimination upon which its premier global event is built.

I was one of the American teens in the 1960s who was drawn to the sport by the elegance, artistry, and charm of Brazilian superstar Pelé. When my school in Ohio started a soccer program my junior year in high school, I was one of the founding members, playing right wing — was even named Most Valuable Player one week because of a break-away play I ran through the heart of the defense of Ohio University's club team. I played my freshman year at Ohio Wesleyan University until ankle and knee injuries forced me to drop out. When I moved to Kodiak, Alaska in the mid-1970s, I established and played in the city's first adult indoor-outdoor soccer program. When I worked for the Anchorage Daily News in the 1980s, I starred on the paper's soccer team that kicked the rival Anchorage Times' collective butt. As deputy sports editor of the Oakland Tribune, I coordinated the World Cup coverage for the Bay Area Newspaper Group in the 1990s.

Loved every minute of it — but enough is enough.

Hideous flaws plague many elite programs and events in modern commercial spectator sports. Athlete exploitation, municipalities and countries diverting resources that could address social ills to fill the bottomless pockets of rapacious owners and host organizations, cultures of sexual, psychological, and physical abuse — such exercises of corruption and greed too often encase our brightest and most beloved athletic displays.

But FIFA and the men's World Cup top them all.

Skip the scouting reports this quadrennium and ignore the betting odds on the teams and matches when the event begins November 20. When you get ready to cheer as an announcer yells out GGOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAALLLL!, reflect for a moment on the things that led to that fleeting moment of athletic artistry.

Let's begin with the massive infrastructure, including hotels, airports, roads, and stadiums, built so that Qatar, a country with virtually no significant history of involvement with soccer, could host the sport's premier global event.

Think those were built by the sweat of the 313,000 Qataris who live there? Nope: they were constructed by the enormous pool of underpaid, largely forced labor of impoverished foreign workers who make up the bulk of Qatar's 2.8 million population.

Think that all of that money pouring in to Qatar's economy (the government is spending about $220 billion on the event, about five times the budget for any previous World Cup) will go to pay the workers who made it possible? Not so fast. Human rights groups have reported horrendous working environments and labor abuses through all of the years of construction despite there-there assurances from FIFA and the Qatar government that they were working to ensure proper working conditions.

Those improvements have worked so well that a French company was preliminarily charged this month for using forced labor and committing other abuses against migrant workers from countries such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

The French human rights advocacy group Sherpa said it had documented instances of workers laboring in temperatures exceeding 113 degrees Fahrenheit with insufficient water, having their passports withheld so they could not leave, and not having showers in their company-provided housing.

But at least they are well paid, right? Well, at least 60 workers were arrested in August for protesting the horrific treatment and conditions, as well as the fact that they had not been paid for as much as seven months. Minimum wage in Qatar? About $1.30 an hour ... assuming the company doesn't trump up excuses not to pay.

The labor and human rights advocacy group Equidem has been tracking conditions in Qatar for years, including holding extensive interviews with workers as recently as October. It released a gut-wrenching report this month, available at www.equidem.org, that documents such incidents as physical assaults on workers, coercive threats made to compel workers to comply with inhumane conditions, and crew bosses rounding up workers and clearing them from work sites so they would not be available to talk with inspectors sent to monitor working conditions. If you really want a sense of what's behind the Qatar World Cup, read the report and ask yourself, is this really what you want to cheer?

"This is a World Cup built on modern slavery," stated Equidem Executive Director Mustafa Qadri.

Dozens of deaths of the migrant workers have been reported, but it would appear those are underreported. Qatar rarely identifies a death as being work-related. Instead, most of the deaths are reported as being from "natural causes" — 'cause as you know, if you are doing heavy manual labor during a 14-hour shift with no water in 114-degree weather with no opportunity to sit, there really is a good chance you will die from stroke, heart attack, or other natural causes.

It would seem Qatar has spent more money and effort the past decade suppressing news of its massive labor atrocities than correcting the cruelties themselves. Think the Fox network will dedicate much airtime to that in its coverage?

Then there were the predictably corrupt and tragic circumstances that led to Qatar (and Russia before it) being awarded the World Cup.

Sepp Blatter was president of FIFA from 1998 until being forced out by multiple scandals and allegations of corruption in 2015. He was the person in charge in 2010 when FIFA decided to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 Cup to Qatar — two countries noted for their hostility to the LGBTQ+ community.

Blatter has been blissfully out of the public consciousness since his forced withdrawal, but this month he opened his yap to tell a Swiss newspaper, "Qatar is a mistake. It's a country that's too small. Football and the World Cup are too big for that."

So, that's it: Qatar is not too discriminatory or inhumanely exploitive. It's just too small.

FIFA's paid a lot of lip service in recent years to proclaiming its desire to rid the sport of its ubiquitous racism, sexism, and homophobia. I've written many sports columns about its spotty performance on enforcing its own measures against discriminatory behavior and language, and most especially its major failures to stand up to homophobia. It's really hard to think of FIFA as anything but uncaring and tone deaf when it chooses a host country so hostile to the queer community. And by hostile I mean homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and punishable by seven years imprisonment.

In a meeting with the press this month, Khalid Salman, a former Qatari soccer player, said of gays who wanted to attend the World Cup, "They have to accept our rules here. [Homosexuality] is haram. You know what haram means?"

Haram means forbidden.

"I am not a strict Muslim, but why is it haram?" Salman said. "Because it is damage in the mind."

Oh, did I mention Salman is not just a former soccer player? He's actually an official ambassador for the Qatar World Cup organizing committee. The same committee that is trying to reassure the world that LGBTQ+ spectators coming for the World Cup will be safe and won't be arrested or beaten just for being themselves ... as long as they modify their behavior and expressiveness and respect the laws that criminalize them.

Am I saying tune out the World Cup now because I'm gay? No. That figures into my thoughts, but it goes far beyond that.

I'm tired of being asked to respect laws that outlaw who I am.

I'm tired of FIFA saying it wants to root out homophobia and then failing over and over again to take action to do so, year in and year out, match after match after match. I'm sickened it says it wants to oppose homophobia and then doesn't even recognize its own hypocrisy in awarding the World Cup to a country where the worst kind of homophobia is built into the law.

But even more so, I'm tired of countries using globally televised sports to distract us from their massive, institutionalized discrimination and exploitation to provide their egos with a false patina of human decency (I'm looking at you, LIV Golf Series) and line the pockets of their richest oligarchs.

I'll miss rooting for Brazil and Italy, the teams I have cheered for 40 years, but we can walk through life with blinders on only for so long. The stench of the Qatar World Cup overwhelms the sweetness of the sport. The moment we tune in, we are part of the problem.

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