In the recently concluded second season of Ted Lasso, a number of serious issues are covered by this otherwise amiable show.
One is ‘Sports Washing’.
Sports Washing is the practice, by a nation or a corporation, of sponsoring a sporting team or competition in order to distract attention from either human rights abuses by a nation or of ruthless business practices by a corporation. That is my definition, and there are probably better ones out there. I do not pretend to be a latter day answer to Dr Samuel Johnson.
One of my favourite episodes in Season 2 of Ted Lasso is the one which deals with Sports Washing. In that episode, the loveable young rising player Sam discovers that there is a sinister side to the fictional sponsor of AFC Richmond, Dubai Air. Dubai Air is owned by a ruthless oil company who, with the complicity of its corrupt host government in Africa, is polluting Nigeria, Sam’s home country.
After he learns this (Sam, being only 21, is rather naive initially, but a very decent and honourable man), Sam decides before AFC Richmond’s very next match to cover up the Dubai Air sponsorship bar on his uniform with masking tape.
The other Nigerian players follow suit, with Sam explaining to the rest of the team why they as Nigerians need to do this. Then, in what is one of the most moving (and redemptive) moments of the show, former primadonna Jamie Tartt follows suit, telling the rest of the players that they are a team and need to wear the same kit, and they do.
The resulting publicity from the press conference Ted gets Sam to hold after the match does succeed in causing the parent company to cease their operations in Nigeria.
Dubai Air is a fictional airline. Emirates Airlines, on the other hand, is real, and is owned by the government of Dubai, which is controlled by a local Sheikdom (or Emirate if you prefer, one of several ‘United Arab Emirates’ which make up a nation state in that part of the world).
Taking a step back for a moment, let us look at what the various royal families of the UAE, particularly the more prominent ones such as that of Dubai and that of Abu Dhabi (whose royal family owns the airline Etihad) do.
Amnesty International is highly critical of the conduct of the UAE on human rights issues. As a prime example, there is the case known as the ‘UAE 94’ where 94 people critical of the regime were arrested and subject to an unfair trial. 60 of those people are still in gaol. Then there are other examples of unfair trials, arbitrary detention, suppression of freedom of expression, concerns about women’s rights, the appalling conditions faced by guest workers, and the UAE’s involvement in the highly lethal conflict in Yemen.
The ABC recently ran a story on the foreign ownership of various A-League soccer teams in Australia. There was concern about Melbourne City, which is owned by the City Football Group (most famous for ownership of Manchester City), being part of a Sports Washing racket. This is because City Football Group is owned by a prominent member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, who are involved in human rights abuses in the UAE.
The message is a pretty clear one. Ownership and sponsorship of sporting teams and competitions is being used to distract attention from the human rights abuses the owners of those sponsors are active or complicit in. This is particularly a problem in Australian soccer, especially with the current ownership of Melbourne City.
This problem, Sports Washing, is not isolated to Australian soccer. It is a problem in Australian Rules Football. As the national sport, Australian Rules Football needs to endeavour to be cleaner than soccer (a sport which is tainted with many colours of corruption).
Who does not remember when the Docklands Stadium currently known as Marvel Stadium was called ‘Etihad Stadium’, after the airline owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi. Thankfully, this is over.
But Collingwood Football Club is the worst, longest and most complicit participant in Sports Washing. Ever since 1999, several months after Eddie Maguire became their president, Emirates Airlines has been a premier partner of the Magpies.
Because Eddie has always had many irons in the fire (at the same time he was taking over Collingwood he was telling us in very clever terms why we should become a republic, and soon after was managing Channel 9 from first to second place in the ratings, before seeking to run unpaid PR for King Kong), we cannot expect him to ever be very informed about any of his decisions, choices, or pronunciations (he is after all a Collingwood supporter, not a rocket scientist). However, failing to exercise duty of care over a 20 year period in the choice of sponsor for his football club is particularly concerning.
It is time for the complicity of the AFL and of the Collingwood Football Club in the practice of Sports Washing to end. Collingwood should end their sponsorship with the fictional Dubai Air’s not so fictional real counterpart, Emirates Airlines.