By now, the people who work at the highest echelon of sport have figured out how this protest con works.
It used to be you could ignore the little people. But then some bright bulb gave them the internet. Now the lousy plebs have no problem yelling directly at you or, worse, your sponsors. So you must engage.
The trick is to be seen doing something, without actually doing anything. Those Rolexes aren’t going to buy themselves.
The IOC pioneered the multipronged approach to anti-protest. But FIFA and its member nations are doing a marvellous job perfecting it today.
The issue is the World Cup in Qatar. A bunch of foreign workers died building the facilities. The country is antagonistic to the LGBTQ community. There’s pressure on sports figures from liberal democracies to do something about that.
Now if the French, Brazilian or U.S. men’s national soccer teams refused to play in a country that does not align with their national values, that would be something. That would upend the entire international sports complex.
But no one’s going to do that because that’s, um … what’s the word we’re looking for here? … that’s expensive. That’s going to screw up a bunch of shoe deals and make life annoying for at least a few weeks.
Also, the players want to go to the World Cup. A lot of them are out in public being vaguely aggrieved, but not a single one has come anywhere close to suggesting he might not go. Why should they suffer? They didn’t elect the president of Qatar, whoever that is.
Instead, they will protest.
Protest used to mean meeting up at the factory gates to get your skull cracked by the Pinkertons. Nowadays, it means wearing a cool new shirt. Or a special armband. Or kneeling. Or standing up. Or singing, and sometimes not singing.
This sort of protest doesn’t achieve anything, but it looks like something and everyone continues to get rich. That’s the important part.
While the players are protesting, their bosses perform a public-relations pincer move and pretend to crack down on them.
What does cracking down look like in this context? It’s a letter. A strongly worded letter, leaked to the media, with lots of exclamation points and no actionable threats.
“We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in the letter sent to all participant countries. “But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”
Oh man, he sounds serious this time!
One of the points at issue is a ‘One Love’ multi-coloured armband several European teams plan to wear at the World Cup, where they will all make a ton of money.
FIFA would prefer teams not wear unapproved uniform add-ons. The teams would prefer FIFA stay out of their room, Mom.
There may very well be fines. But damn it all to hell, those countries will pay them. No power can deter them from their righteous mission to support LGBTQ rights (while working their fantastically lucrative side hustle in a country where homosexuality is illegal).
Most leagues are happy to leave it there. A con coming loudly from two angles, unsettling the mark (you are the mark).
But FIFA is so good at this it has a third man on the job. Just as everyone’s trying to figure out what’s happening and, hey, where’s my wallet, FIFA hits you with Sepp Blatter.
He’s one of the pioneers of this squeeze.
Now the disgraced former FIFA boss is back and he’s upset. He doesn’t think Qatar should have got the World Cup that he was in charge of giving.
It’s not as though he’s got religion or anything. Blatter is angry because his frenemy in sports administration, Michel Platini, somehow fixed it for Qatar because the then-president of France asked him to. Or something like that.
It’s all very confusing, which is the point. Just as people were settling down to have a think about whether wearing an armband does anyone anywhere any good, they’ve got this false-flag operation over on the other side of the news cycle.
Hit them with this a week before the tournament starts. Make it hard and fast and noisy.
The players are pretending to care. Their bosses are pretending to be angry. Blatter is pretending to have a clue. Which frees the rest of us to pretend things are changing.
It allows people to twist themselves into knots to have it every which way – to be angry, compliant, complicit and above the fray, all at once. Even the smartest people in soccer are compromised by self-interest here.
“I will watch [the World Cup] from a football point of view, but I don’t like the fact that the players now have to send a message,” Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp, arguably the game’s most admired thinker, said recently. “You are all journalists. You should have sent the message, but you didn’t write the most critical articles about circumstances that were clear. There we are guilty.”
What pure, uncut nonsense. If Klopp’s Liverpool players all said they weren’t going to a World Cup in Qatar, there might not be a World Cup in Qatar. But it’s not their fault. It’s the bovine schlubs who lob questions up at them as they’re getting off the charter flight. They’re the real power here.
This sort of bait-and-switch – ‘Who? Me? What about you?’ – is what passes for political debate right now.
FIFA and its ilk understand the real issue. It isn’t a choice between right and wrong. We’re beyond naive questions of responsibility. Their job is figuring out how to make you, the viewer, feel sanctified while partaking of something that is morally compromised.
The answer isn’t deflection or denial. That’s pre-internet thinking.
It’s inviting everyone to come together online so that we can all pretend together. Down with bigotry! I stand with X! What time is the game on!
That way everyone can have their fun and later, it will be hard to say who in particular was to blame. And if no one’s to blame, did anything bad happen?