Sports and Human Rights from an Ethical Perspective: The Relevance of Human Rights for Sports

Sports and Human Rights from an Ethical Perspective: The Relevance of Human Rights for Sports

Peter G. Kirchschlaeger (University of Lucerne, Switzerland & Yale University, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 24
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0723-9.ch014


Sports-associations (e. g. FIFA) engage in the fight against racism. Together with the UN, sports-associations (e. g. IOC) emphasize shared principles (justice, equality, and anti-discrimination). At the same time, athletes use the attention they receive for political activism, and sometimes they face criticism for politicizing sports. Furthermore, mega-sports-events can cause human rights violations, and other human rights challenges belong to sports itself, e.g., doping, child abuse. Therefore, this chapter will analyze the relation between sports and human rights and address the fundamental question if human rights are of relevance for sports. This question has not so far attracted as much of scientific attention as the analysis what sports does wrong and what could be done different. This chapter will discuss reasons justifying a human rights-engagement by sports and reasons for a human rights-abstinence by sports – concluding with a justification that human rights are relevant in different dimensions for sports.
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I love to play basketball. When I was a teenager, Michael Jordan was winning the first and the second NBA-three-peat of his career. I was a fan of one of probably the best basketball-players of human history. I was extremely disappointed when I knew later that Michael Jordan refused to support the civil-rights-movement in the USA due to concerns about his attractive sponsor-contracts – not only as a Jordan-fan, but in front of all as a human. “He carefully dodged any political issue that might have jeopardized his family-friendly image. When asked in 1992 about the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, for instance, Jordan lamely replied: ‘I need to know more about it.’ (…) Jordan has remained devoutly apolitical. He has never used his platform to pursue social or political change; indeed, he’s gone out of his way to play it safe. This is, of course, precisely how the corporations he endorses want it. Politics and successful marketing don’t mix” (Nieman Reports 2014). Regarding his sponsor’s Nike allegedly exploitative labor practices in Southeast Asia, “Jordan first said it wasn’t his problem, but later said he would travel to Asia, explaining that ‘if it’s an issue of slavery or sweatshops, [Nike executives] have to revise the situation.’ Yet even after acknowledging the specter of ‘slavery,’ Jordan never made the trip” (Nieman Reports 2014). By saying that his charity-work donating millions should not be underestimated. But Michael Jordan did not become politically active and was criticized for it by other professional athletes, e. g. Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown and Hank Aaron. And it is possible for professional athletes to take a political stand, like e. g. teammate of the Chicago Bulls Craig Hodges did, bringing to “a White House ceremony in a dashiki (…) a letter for George Bush on the plight of the inner cities. ‘I can’t go and just be in an Armani suit and not say shit,’ Hodges later told The Village Voice. (…) As Jesse Jackson told The Washington Post in 1996: ‘If [sports stars] can sell these wares with the power of their personas, they also can sell civic responsibility with the power of their personas’” (Nieman Reports 2014).

Roger Federer, one of the best tennis-players of all time, runs his own foundation for children (RF Foundation 2014) which is admirable, and gives at the same time his name and face to his sponsor “Nike” which is known to be critique-resistant concerning its use of child-labor, its working conditions violating human rights, … How much impact would it have if sports-stars like Roger Federer would step up and request from their sponsor “Nike” a better human rights-performance similar to their outstanding sports-performance?

The Winter Olympic Games 2014 in Sotschi provoked increasing pressure on human rights activists and organizations in the country because the Russian government wanted to show the world a face of Russia without human rights issues. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and other world-sports-associations try to shut up athletes when they want to express their political points of view, as the international track and field athlete Jonathan Cook explains: “In August 2013, in a prelude to the debates that have shrouded the Sochi Games, the Swedish High Jumper, Emma Green Tregaro, competing at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow, was reprimanded for painting her nails in the colours of the rainbow in a statement of solidarity with homosexual Russians. Green Tregaro was told that her actions breached IAAF regulations, which stipulate that athletes may not engage in any political or commercial statements; and she was instructed to repaint her nails prior to the next round of competition or risk disqualification. Such overbearing actions – inhibiting the considered and reasoned right of expression for an athlete with a clear sense of her own personal convictions – are fundamentally wrong” (Huffpost Students 2014).

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