AuthorZirin, Dave

We are living in a profoundly reactionary time. Unelected Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have grabbed the country's steering wheel, pulled it hard to the right, and driven us straight off a cliff. The crushing of abortion rights, the curtailing of environmental protections, the deification of guns, the elimination of free and fair elections, and the shattering of the wall between church and state have left the majority of us reeling.

In my neck of the woods--sports--it raises the question: What is the ethical role of athletes at such a time? Answering this question is crucial, because sports will definitely be used to distract people from the harsh reality of a society sliding into autocracy.

Using sports as a diversion has been a feature of autocratic societies since the days of ancient Rome, when the satirical poet Juvenal wrote of a society drunk on panem et circenses, or "bread and circuses." The twentieth century was peppered with examples, too: Murderous autocrats used large sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup to project a positive image to the world.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin entailed two weeks of propaganda for Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. During what arguably was the most famous boxing match of the century, the "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974, Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman in Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo), a country controlled by a bloody dictator. Four years later, the World Cup took place in Argentina, where, just a few blocks from the stadium, fascist soldiers tortured and killed innocent people while the world looked away.

The use of sports as a tool of propaganda occurs so frequently that it has its own term: "sportswashing." Some members of the media have even declared 2022 "the year of sportswashing."

It started in February, when China hosted the Winter Olympics while its own athletes were disappearing for speaking out. Then there was Saudi Arabia, which executes political dissidents, journalists, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, and is now promoting a new LIV Golf Invitational Series tour that has attracted stars like Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, and Patrick Reed with obscene amounts of money. In a few months, Qatar will host the World Cup, generating positive publicity for a country where at least 6,500 migrant workers have died since Qatar was awarded this prestigious tournament a decade ago...

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