From the moment the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar, fans throughout the globe have become familiar with sportswashing: the attempt by a powerful figurehead to use athletics to distract from their record of human-rights abuses.
While the World Cup is the most prominent example, sportswashing can also hit home on a more local scale. When the North Carolina Courage brought avowed homophobe Jaelene Daniels onto their roster, they quickly alienated a huge LGBTQ portion of their fanbase.
And when Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (an organization chaired by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman) bought the Premier League’s Newcastle United last year, it caused a firestorm.
As a recent story in The Athletic spotlighted, this single transaction threw Newcastle’s LGBTQ fanbase into chaos and they haven’t been the same since.
When the transaction was announced, LGBTQ soccer fans and Saudi expatriates throughout the UK protested the PIF’s involvement in the Premier League and called attention to the numerous atrocities the Saudi regime has committed against its queer population.
Following the purchase, Newcastle’s LGBTQ fan group United With Pride released a statement acknowledging “that Saudi Arabia as a country is one of the least tolerant of LGBTQ+ and gender rights anywhere in the world.” That part was undeniable.
But United With Pride went on to add that they hoped the purchase of Newcastle would be “a positive influence to improving the conditions for the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia.” The most charitable response to that sentiment was that it was stunningly naive. It would be quite a story indeed if Saudi Arabia decided to ban conversion therapy because of a Jamaal Lascelles goal in stoppage time.
When other LGBTQ fan groups read that statement, they voiced their displeasure. Things eventually got so heated that United With Pride ended up leaving Pride In Football, the group that oversees LGBTQ fan groups throughout the sport.
One of the most distressing aspects of being an LGBTQ sports fan arises when a team aligns itself with a homophobic player, executive, or in this extreme case, one of the world’s most repressive antigay regimes.
It brings about an internal conflict: the loyalty you feel to a team for which you’ve developed a strong emotional attachment, versus the disgust of knowing that same team is now tied on some level to the forces of bigotry and oppression against your community.
In many cases (myself very much included when the Cubs acquired Daniel Murphy in 2018), we rationalize things in order to maintain ties with that emotional bond. “I’m rooting for all the other legit good guys and gritting my teeth through this bigot’s presence,” or “I’m cheering for the players, not for ownership.”
These rationalizations can be true. But the involvement of Saudi Arabia with Newcastle’s operations, or FIFA holding the World Cup in Qatar, raises the question: Is there a point where LGBTQ sports fans need to draw the line and say we can’t commit ourselves emotionally anymore when a team or league aligns with a regime this homophobic?
For United With Pride treasurer and former chair Ian Pearson-Brown, Newcastle has not crossed that line yet.
In an interview with The Athletic’s Florence Lloyd-Hughes, Pearson-Brown insisted:
We have to look at [our fan relationship] from a pragmatic point of view and think, ‘We can only control the controllables, we can’t control who owns Newcastle, we can’t control domestic policies in the Middle East.’ What we can do is we can put on a good display, monitor social media for anything negative or homophobic and report it. We can promote the mental health campaign to our members and to the wider communities, we can make sure we have a presence at Northern Pride to show the communities football is an open welcoming space for LGBTQ+ fans.
While his explanation may sound like a lot of post-facto justification, it’s also an understandable instinct for any longtime sports fan. The emotional bond between fan and team is built up over decades and can’t be dissolved or dismissed in an instant.
“Some people say we should down tools and stop our engagement work with the club, or some people say we should go support another club,” Pearson-Brown admitted. “That was never realistically going to happen.”
That gets at the heart of the matter. While a good case can be made that the Bin Salman regime’s ghastly record of human-rights violations should be extreme enough to convince LGBTQ sports fans to sever ties, there is one other fundamental truth in play with this level of sportswashing.
It is profoundly unfair for organizations like Newcastle United to put LGBTQ sports fans in the position where they feel that continuing to support something they love in some way degrades who they are.
This goes for Newcastle, it goes for any team that employed Daniel Murphy or former NFL coach Tony Dungy, and it most certainly goes for everyone involved with FIFA.