“Stick to Sports” Is Not a Neutral Position

Hopefully we’ll look at the “stick to sports” notion someday like we look at blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, surfer slang from the 1980s, or grunge rock from the 1990s. That is, as something that we once thought was interesting but would be silly to apply to our current era.

I’m writing this on Christmas Day in the aftermath of the racist chants directed at Antonio Rüdiger and Son Heung-Min in the Chelsea-Tottenham game. I’m sure between now and when I finish this article, there will be yet another such incident in the world of global soccer. Given the waves of xenophobia, nativism and more overt racism that have increasingly been reported around the world in the last few years, this is yet another reflection of sport and current events being inexorably intertwined.

Meanwhile, Arsenal player Mesut Özil recently aroused the ire of Chinese fans when he posted a message of his Instagram page lamenting the persecution of Uighurs in China and the lack of outrage in the Muslim community. Arsenal, trying to salvage its numerous business interests in China, distanced itself from Özil’s comments by immediately responding that Özil’s opinion was his own and that the club “has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.” They had no such response to Hector Bellerin’s #FuckBoris [Johnson] tweet the day before. This was yet another cynical example of an entity siding with the 800-pound gorilla to preserve the status quo, using the flimsy “stick to sports” excuse. (Unlike the NBA in the recent Darryl Morey hullabaloo, Arsenal did not have to deal with local politicians calling them out on their kowtowing to China. Also, when discussing this Arsenal situation, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention FC Cologne in Germany, who recently pulled out of a deal to run a soccer academy in China, saying they would not support “such a totalitarian and brutal dictatorship”.)

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Arsenal player Mesut Özil. Image: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

This is the same Mesut Özil who won a World Cup and has been named German player of the year five times. But he has recently retired from international duty due to the discrimination and disrespect he has felt from German fans and authorities due to his Turkish heritage, although both he and his parents were born and raised in Germany. Similar sentiments about dealing with xenophobia within their own countries have been expressed by many players, including Rahim Sterling, Romelu Lukaku, and Mario Balotelli.

(Lest readers think I blindly support Özil, I should point out that this is the same person who is publicly friendly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. So rather than blindly attack his support of Uighurs or baselessly question his commitment to Germany, valid questions could be asked of his apparent support of Erdoğan, a ruthless ruler who in recent years has purged many of his political opponents.)

There is no such thing as “sticking to sports.” Or, to put it differently, “sticking to sports” is not a neutral position, as Arsenal demonstrated. Either you support certain causes or you just want to “stick to sports.” Either you care about players’ wellbeing and what they have to deal with or you wish they would just “shut up and dribble,” as Fox News famously put it.

Sports reflect society at large and many issues will be reflected within the sports world. This makes the recent collapse of Deadspin all the more tragic. While Deadspin’s writing wasn’t always great and could be sophomoric at times, especially in its early years, the writers were spot on in recognizing that sports do not exist in a vacuum and sportswriting needs to integrate context from the wider world when relevant and appropriate. They were often the only major news source reporting from an outsider’s perspective on broader issues within the context of sports, such as authoritarian regimes buying their way into the global soccer, player’s rights, racist behavior by fans and team management, etc. In today’s world, we need more publications like Deadspin, not fewer.

Finally, my twelve-year-old cousin was recently called a “f — king [n-word]” in his soccer match. Just a reminder that for many of us, we don’t have a choice to just bury our head in the sand and “stick to sports.” Stay strong, Rhys!

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