Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: Playing fair

Is it possible to consume sport ethically?
September 8, 2022

My friend Jenny and I had never discussed sport before this summer. She has the delicate frame and cocked head of a songbird, and a personality to match. Jenny is drawn to the fragile things in life—her favourite hobby is ceramics. When we meet up, she usually talks about the art exhibitions that have moved her recently, or which of our friends needs extra love and care right now. The competitive instinct to best others baffles her, and the sweaty rough and tumble of a physical contest holds even less appeal. 

I was surprised, then, when she got hooked on the Commonwealth Games, although less surprised to hear that her gateway sport was rhythmic gymnastics. Apparently Gemma Frizelle’s gold-medal routine in the hoop final caught her attention, and she stuck around for the diving and then the pole vault, hypnotised by the athletes’ bravery and mystical bendability. Her discovery of a new form of beauty proves that sport has something for everyone.

After hours of watching, Jenny had questions for me about sport; I braced myself to be quizzed on the scoring system for the 10-metre synchro event. Instead, she asked: is it OK to enjoy an event that celebrates an outdated colonial model and maintains the legacy of an exploitative empire? And what about the countries that are allowed to compete despite having laws that make homosexuality punishable by imprisonment, or even death? Talking of brutality, why is boxing acceptable, when it looks like a socially sanctioned form of violence?

Given the amount of time I spend watching sport, my inability to provide instant answers to these questions felt like a personal failing. It’s not like I don’t think about this stuff. Being a sports fan in the 21st century requires you to engage with more important issues than whether United’s back four is better off without Harry Maguire, or whether England can win back the Ashes under Ben Stokes. Subjects now regularly debated within the sporting world include how it should respond to the anti-vax movement and the war in Ukraine, what position to take on women’s and trans rights—not to mention its role in confronting structural racism and the Marxist-or-otherwise implications of taking the knee. I don’t think sport, or society, is any worse for having those discussions. 

What is harder is figuring out how to respond when sport tries to excuse itself from ethical considerations. The sports industry is a commercial behemoth with a ravenous appetite. It is also an instrument of soft power whose values and ethics have proven very malleable indeed. The Football Association, for instance, has the so-called “fit and proper persons test” for club owners and directors, designed to keep corruption and bad actors out of the game. And yet this doesn’t seem to discourage greedy venture capitalists, dodgy billionaires or the investment arms of foreign powers with appalling human rights records.

The growing trend of “sportswashing,” where repressive regimes sponsor teams and events to help launder their reputations (see Joy of Lex, p24), means that it’s increasingly hard to be an ethical consumer. Some decisions do come easily: I have no interest, for instance, in watching the new LIV Golf Tour—the Saudi Arabian-funded rival to the PGA that is luring in big names to play for it. But there are less obvious examples. What about Newcastle United and Manchester City, teams that are both owned by companies with links to the royal families of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, respectively? Should their fans boycott their own team? And what about Qatar, which will host the Fifa World Cup after a 12-year build-up of horror stories about the treatment of migrant workers during the construction of new stadiums. Should we boycott the event entirely?

And what about international sport’s vast carbon footprint—does my support help sustain the unsustainable? Can you want to fight climate change and love motor racing? Even Lewis Hamilton seems to have had difficulty squaring the two.

Perhaps, given the extraordinary array of sport we have to choose from, we need simple and transparent guidance on the ways to be conscientious consumers. After all, we know, at least in theory, how to shop ethically; we’ve learned the difference between battery-farmed chicken and free-range organic, between fast fashion and fairtrade. Maybe what we need is a similar certification process for sport, so that we know our entertainment comes from responsible sources—and that no one is harmed in the making of it.