On 12 March 2022, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia executed 81 people in a single day. On 13 March 2022, fans of Newcastle United waved Saudi Arabian flags during a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea FC. It’s a perfect example of the enforced ignorance brought about by highly strategic sportswashing projects; and their ability to allow oppressive regimes who already control the press at home to also bypass critical exile and foreign media, presenting a new and highly sanitised public image of themselves. One year before this particular match, the Saudi Public Investment Fund bought Newcastle United in one of the most high-profile cases of sportswashing seen in recent years.
What is sportswashing?
Sportswashing is, in essence, a form of subtle propaganda involving the acquisition of sports clubs, federations, or tournaments by oppressive regimes, corporations, or even individuals. By allowing their reputation to be tangled in with the emotionally-charged and largely innocuous sports news cycle, they can manipulate independent media to promote a polished public image of themselves. Imagine a criminal organisation purchasing an innocent front-facing business to launder dirty money. Replace the money with the owner’s murky reputation, and the innocent business with a sporting club or federation, and this is precisely what sportswashing is doing. On paper it seems quite primitive, but in reality it is proving incredibly effective.
The consequences of sportswashing go far beyond its impact on media freedom, but the two are unquestionably intertwined. Some recent cases, such as the 2018 Russia World Cup, the LIV Golf Tour, or the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, have thrust numerous sports federations into an unwanted limelight. They have found themselves the focus of much more pointed questions from the media, which in turn has led to more pushback against genuine criticism in the public interest. You can see similar scenarios related to concerns around human rights abuses ahead of the upcoming World Cup in Qatar and the sanctioning of Russian Oligarch Roman Abramovich and his subsequent sale of Chelsea FC. Thomas Tuchel, then Chelsea manager, gave a clear example of this pushback when probed about Abramovich’s connection to Vladimir Putin. The German manager shut down questions from reporters on the topic and claimed that, as he is not a politician, he has no answers. Given that these people – namely the players and managers – are the public-facing representatives of the clubs, this cannot be accepted as a valid excuse for not engaging with – or even actively shutting down questions from – the media.
Sports journalism – A microcosm for media freedom in Europe
The challenges facing journalists reporting on these cases are not solely brought about by belligerent club representatives. Despite the fact that reporters are working entirely within their rights when asking difficult questions of managers and players, the media freedom environment in Europe is making it increasingly difficult for them to do so. In early September, La Liga Nacional de Fútbol Profesional, the top division of the men’s football league system in Spain, introduced new regulations banning journalists from asking “uncomfortable” questions of players and managers. If broadcasters fail to report in line with the regulations, La Liga can request the “withdrawal” of offending journalists – a very clear violation of media freedom and the right to access information in Spain. This incident is emblematic of a wider issue facing sports journalists across Europe. By playing host to physical attacks at stadiums, ejections from press conferences, and denials of accreditation the world of sport serves as a microcosm for media freedom throughout Europe. This is made abundantly clear in efforts from independent journalists to challenge the largely distorted images cultivated by sportswashing projects.
The relationship between media freedom and sports – especially in the context of sportswashing – is an odd one. Sports allegiances are built on emotional foundations. Any negative coverage of clubs or federations – even of their owners – will often be met with emotionally-driven responses. Sportswashing projects abuse media coverage to fabricate a favourable reputation for their owners, while also facilitating an increasingly disparaging image of critical journalists. As oppressive regimes continue sanitising their public image through the acquisition of sports clubs or by hosting major tournaments, the barrier between journalists and the clubs grows higher and harder to cross, and valid criticism of the clubs’ ties to these regimes is engulfed by softer sports-related news.
For sportswashing projects to work, they need buy-in from the media. For example, in the coming weeks, Qatar needs stories of a triumphant 2022 World Cup, and not of the 6,500 migrant workers who have died there in the past decade – as illustrated by the latest wave of chilling restrictions imposed on international press visiting to cover the tournament. In this light, independent media serves as both a tool for the proliferation of sportswashing projects, and the biggest threat to their success. However, as the project masterminds’ reputations are diluted by the sports news cycle, hostility towards journalists who report on their alleged wrongdoings begins to rise. Any favourable self-image they have cultivated within their restricted media freedom environment at home is slowly exported abroad; and with that comes public pushback against any work that may undermine it.