Kent State Hosts International Discussion on Politically Charged World Cup
When the U.S. Soccer Team takes the field today to play Iran, there will be more on the line than just which team will advance toward the World Cup.
The match, which ended in a 1-0 victory for the U.S. team, comes at a time when protests within Iran for women’s rights have resulted in increasing oppression, arrests and even the deaths of women who dare to speak up, with the political turmoil spilling into the public spectacle of the 2022 World Cup games.
The U.S. Soccer Federation on Sunday displayed Iran’s flag on its social media accounts missing its emblem of the Islamic Republic, to show support for the protesters. The move enraged Iran resulting in its state-run media, on Monday, calling for the U.S. to be kicked out of the games.
How world politics are playing out against the backdrop of the 2022 World Cup games was the topic of a seminar sponsored Monday by Kent State’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies, School of Media and Journalism, the Gerald H. Read Center for International and Intercultural Education, and the Department of Peace Studies and International Development at the University of Bradford in West Yorkshire, England.
“Sports, Politics, Peace and Development,” a series of online seminars, was developed to overlap with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which takes place through Dec. 18, and specifically ahead of the U.S. versus Iran game, said Neil Cooper, director of Kent State’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Opening the series was the seminar entitled, “Protest, Politics & Performance Allyship: The cultural and political implications of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar,” which focused on the numerous human rights issues surrounding the hosting of the World Cup in Qatar, including woman’s rights, abuse of migrant workers and LGBTQ rights.
The panel was hosted by Danielle Sarver Coombs, Ph.D., professor at Kent State’s School of Media and Journalism. Presenters were Michael Butterworth, Ph.D., director of the Center for Sports Communication and Media at the University of Texas at Austin; Ann Pegoraro, Ph.D., Lang Chair in Sports Management at the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada; Rory McGrath, Ph.D., associate professor of Sociology at Solent University, Southhampton, England; and Molly Yanity, Ph.D., chair of the Journalism Department at Quinnipiac University in New York.
Coombs addressed the numerous issues that plagued the games before they even began, including the refusal of Qatar to allow the display of rainbow shirts, flags or other clothing, to support the LGBTQ community. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar.
The “One Love” campaign, in which the captains of seven soccer teams were set to wear rainbow armbands to promote LGBTQ inclusion, was met with sanctions by soccer’s international governing body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association or FIFA, which determined that any player who took the field in the armband would receive an automatic yellow card penalty.
Another overarching human rights issue, Coombs noted, was the treatment of migrant workers from countries including India and Nepal, who have been used by Qatar to build the facilities needed to host the games.
Butterworth said “sports-washing,” the term used to describe how sports organizations chose to gloss over controversies, has been at play, specifically noting the staggering estimate that as many as 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the country began preparing for the games in 2010.
International sporting events such as the World Cup or the Olympics claim to unite the world through sports in a positive manner, but in reality, “are a phenomenon whereby political leaders use sports to deflect from chronic social problems on the home front,” he said.
Pegoraro, who spoke on the business aspect of the games, noted how large corporate sponsors use such events to build goodwill with their customers.
“The money around sports is still what is driving this,” she said, “The World Cup will make a lot of money for Qatar.”
Yanity, a former sportswriter for The Athletic and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, noted how the cheering crowds have not shown any women, particularly no Qatari women, and she was dismayed that American media had not been reporting the story of the lack of women fans.
She also spoke of the ongoing controversy with the U.S. team changing the Iranian flag as a political protest. “Think if Iran had displayed the U.S. flag without the stars,” she said. “We’re going to be watching an incredibly politically charged clash between the U.S. and Iran.”
The controversy, she said, has also pit Iranians against their fellow Iranians, many of whom are living in exile and who want to see reforms for women in their homeland.
The World Cup, Yanity said, shows how it is impossible to keep politics out of sports.
McGrath addressed the issue of LGBTQ rights and said within the United Kingdom, there has been a cultural shift toward inclusiveness among soccer fans. Recent research, he said, showed a substantial decline in anti-LGBTQ chanting at games, and members of the LGBTQ community report feeling safer in that space. Nearly half of all English soccer clubs now have LGBTQ fan groups.
FIFA’s actions to support Qatar’s refusal to permit LGBTQ-supportive clothing, signs and other gear, are troubling, he said.
Butterworth said actions must be collective across teams in order to have the impact to force change, and for now, that is not happening.
Yanity noted too, that it is difficult for countries to take a strong stand against Qatar when there are civil and human rights violations in all countries. She noted issues with migrant workers in Texas not being paid for their work, or LGBTQ prejudices within the U.S.
Ultimately, Butterworth said, the fans will determine whether the product, in this case, international soccer competitions, continues to sell. So far, the fans are not willing to turn their back on sports, as the U.S. has seen with the NFL, despite numerous scandals.
“The people keep coming back,” he said, “The product is too compelling.”
Other seminar sessions can be viewed here:
"Scoring Goals for Sustainability and Peace," with Tom Woodhouse, Ph.D., emeritus professor of Peace Studies and International Development at the University of Bradford, England, Yolanda Antin, FC Barcelona Foundation and Wayne Jacobs, co-founder and chief executive officer of One in Million, a charity for disadvantaged children in Bradford, England.
"Sport and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Case Studies of Rwanda and Northern Ireland," with David Mitchell, assistant professor of Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity College in Belfast, Northern Ireland and Sylvestre Nzahabwanayo, associate professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Rwanda.
For more information about Kent State's School of Peace and Conflict Studies, visit www.kent.edu/spcs.