ANDYou can’t put a price on principles, but there have always been plenty of people willing to try. In the 1980s, when South Africa’s sporting boycott of apartheid held out relatively, Sun City’s casino operators sought to entice global sports stars to play one-off exhibition matches that violate the ban. John McEnroe, then at the height of his rebellious powers, turned down one such paycheck when he was 24, remembering that “I have better ways to make a million dollars.” In the context of the money available to today’s stars, the bribe offered to McEnroe may sound trivial; it’s worth remembering that in 1983 the $1 million job would have been ten times what he raised to win that year’s Wimbledon.
There were, of course, plenty of players willing to take the cash – McEnroe’s rivals, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl, went for $400,000 and $300,000 respectively. Arthur Ashe, the black American tennis legend and anti-apartheid activist, always tried to dissuade anyone from offering what he called Sun City’s “debt premium.” One group was always the hardest to convince, Ashe recalls: “Golfers all bury their heads in the sand. They’re all six feet tall, blond, right-wing Republicans. They don’t give a damn.”
When, as in recent weeks, there have been sports boycotts on political grounds, the example of the South African ban is most relevant, not least because of those life-changing incentives that were rejected. The seemingly disturbing treatment of tennis player Peng Shuai since her sexual abuse allegations against a leading Communist Party official has personalized the horrific human rights abuses committed by the Chinese government, just as global broadcasters prepare to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.
In the context of the general reluctance to sanction the world’s largest market, the Women’s Tennis Association’s firm stance to boycott tournaments in China until the safety of Peng Shuai is properly established is a rare example of an organization willing to put his money where his mouth is. (The WTA protest will cost it many millions of yen in sponsorship). It also makes the International Olympic Committee, which seemed all too willing to take President Xi Jinping at his word during staged interviews with Peng Shuai, look predictably cowardly.
The toxic love triangle between global sports and global money and repressive governments is so great that similar ethical conflicts are now routinely built into the sports calendar. One of the questions that all athletes and competitors face is: Which fights are worth fighting? Lewis Hamilton is one of the most outspoken sports heroes of the moment in promoting Black Lives Matter. Today he will race in Saudi Arabia for the F1 World Championship wearing a rainbow-colored helmet in support of LGBTQ+ rights in a country where same-sex relationships are punishable by death. That loud and proud pledge is admirable, but it’s also noteworthy that Hamilton, one of the world’s elite influencers, has so far had nothing to say about his Mercedes team’s new sponsor, Kingspan, the industrial upholstery manufacturer that involved in the ongoing investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire.
Hamilton has in the past posted his support on Instagram for Grenfell’s survivors, many of whom now understandably feel betrayed by his team’s lucrative partnership with Kingspan. If he comes to address the issue, Hamilton will no doubt suggest that he has little control over the names Mercedes puts on his car (and if he went that route, he could add, he would certainly have reason to research Petronas’ history. , his team’s main sponsor.) What his silence about Kingspan does, however, is invite critics to scream hypocritically.
Michael Gove was no slouch in making that charge against Hamilton’s team, demanding Mercedes reconsider its deal. It is, again, telling what culture wars the politicians choose to wage. While Gove may have found the time to insinuate about the double standards of arguably the most talked-about black sportsman in this country, he had absolutely nothing to say when he was confronted, for example, with the news that the murderous Saudi royal family Newcastle United FC buy up (feeling no doubt, silently, an easy win for his “leveling up” plans).
The ubiquity of sports, the appeal of “sportwashing” to toxic regimes and dubious corporations, that no armchair fan is quite immune to these kinds of ethical dilemmas. How many season tickets have been returned to Newcastle’s St James’ Park in the name of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi? Or, on a smaller scale, how many Christmas stockings will have replica shirts that will turn every fan into a walking advertisement for offshore gambling companies?
Every sports fan has principles until an oligarch throws money at his team. It’s usually at that point that they make the argument that sport shouldn’t be the only blunt tool to hold rogue states or corporations to account. Or rather, that it represents an invaluable source of soft power, “silent diplomacy” in Lord Coe’s somewhat sinister expression about Peng Shuai’s predicament. Those arguments are sound, but it’s also worth bearing in mind that these were the same formulations used by those who went to apartheid in South Africa – the golfers and the tennis players and the rebellious cricket tourists – just when they put their money in their pockets. “debt premium”.
In an age of sign politics, recent weeks have emphasized the fact that at the very least, ethics need not always disappear when financial sanctions are imposed. Sport has come to enjoy the grand political gesture almost as much as the millions of its sponsors. Getting on your knees is commendable, but a slap in your or your organization’s salary package to protest something you believe in will always carry a heavier weight. Sometimes, as the WTA has tried to argue, as John McEnroe and Arthur Ashe once argued, real symbolic power lies in simply holding on: our principles are not for sale.