Playing the Field

Action Replays For Human Rights Violations

Can we imagine a kind of sports broadcasting that acknowledges the political context of global events like the World Cup?

4 min read

Rending of the future Al Bayt Stadium in Qatar
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The World Cup is on right now. For most people in the world that statement requires no clarification, but for those unaware: this is the soccer World Cup. And then, for most of us, myself included, I should clarify it one more time: it’s the men’s soccer World Cup.

Top-level sports broadcasting is a peculiar thing. Our audience editor, Elizabeth, mentioned to me in passing this week that she found it frustrating that enjoying sports in professional contexts is so institutionalized when enjoying other culture isn’t. That’s certainly true in London, where I am–it’s normal, expected even, for offices to wheel out TVs from meeting rooms during major sports tournaments like the World Cup so that staff can watch, say, Portugal versus Morocco out of the corner of their eye while working at their desks. It’s the “national sport,” after all, but then if it’s about politics, you don’t exactly get offices where staff expect to be able to keep tabs on parliamentary debates while they’re working; nor the latest Marvel movie if it’s just about entertainment.

Ah, but is it just about entertainment? And is it not about politics? Because besides the point that sports get privileged over other form of distraction from work–and not even every sport, as every women’s soccer fan will be acutely aware–it’s also about social cohesion and bonding, in just as problematic a way as it is to expect everyone in an office to want to go to a bar after work to socialize.

It’s not really about whether anyone in particular actually enjoys any of these things, though, because if any one of them came with an expectation that everyone would be at least a little bit interested in it, it’d be just as annoying. No, the key thing here is that sports culture is considered so harmless and neutral a thing that injecting it into any public space as a matter of course is generally unquestioned. That applies to sports broadcasting–it’s a form of media, it deserves critique–as much as it applies to fantasy football sweepstakes and pick-up basketball games during the lunch break.

For those occasions where there’s an expectation that a sports event is allowed to intrude into everyone’s lives, it might seem only a tad more involved than listening to music or a podcast while working or doing other tasks. But I do think it’s worth considering just what is and isn’t considered fair game for communal consumption, without real question, in any democratic society: what’s deemed culturally “neutral,” that everyone is expected to find completely mundane and acceptable as it intrudes into their daily routine.

When it comes to global, televised events like the World Cup and the Olympics, the level of debate in the media tends to focus on the “entertainment factor,” which for this World Cup means a lot of soccer media figures and players arguing over whether the introduction of video referees goes against the “spirit of the game” or not. (I won’t go into the detail here as to why something standard in almost every other globally-popular sport is so controversial for soccer, but the NYT has a decent explainer of why.) There’s very little debate about whether these events actually justify their own importance and position in communal settings.

We ran a piece on Next a couple of years ago about the “hyperreality” of much of sports broadcasting–how slow-motion and CGI annotations in replays makes top-level athleticism feel more real and affective than real life can be, just as TV- or movie-making does in both nonfiction and fiction. But I do think it bears examining just how rare and unusual a form of media something like the World Cup is. More than a billion people watched the final game in 2014, and the total audience was estimated at 3.2 billion, or half the world’s population. The 2016 Summer Olympic Games had similar viewership.

It matters that entertainment, the hyperreality of these events, is prioritized here. The 2018 World Cup is being hosted in Russia, a country with a”¦ dubious human rights record, and currently the subject of economic sanctions due to things like state-sponsored assassination attempts. The 2022 event will be hosted by Qatar, whose bid to host was based upon flashy CGI renderings of new stadia, designed to be kept cool in the intense desert heat thanks to technology that didn’t actually exist at the time. (It still doesn’t–they’re having to move the competition to the winter instead.) Those stadia are being built by a workforce made up largely of migrant workers who are best described as slaves, too. Brazil, host of both the most recent editions of the World Cup and Olympics, used the games as an opportunity to both clear poor people from their homes, and distract from the protests that resulted from that injustice.

The hyperreality of these events presents their hosts with the perfect glamor to offset their bad brand image–and I mean brand image, because the discussions about how to use that glamor are not that dissimilar, whether in boardrooms and presidential residences. I’m never surprised by how spineless and apolitical sports broadcasting is as a result, and how every worry, every critique, every identifiable danger that people point to before an event begins tends to be forgotten as soon as the TVs in the office get switched over to the latest match.

This was a big thing in London before the 2012 Olympics: communities in a poorer part of the city were forced from their homes to make way for new Olympic venues (and new, expensive, replacement neighborhoods afterwards), and laws were passed restricting freedom of speech that might damage the brands of official Olympic sponsors. Those concerns dissipated remarkably quickly once the games began, and the rest of the summer was seen as a successful advert for “Team GB,” both the athletes and the country. I have no doubt the distorting effects of Olympic broadcasting contributed in some part to the shock many people felt when the Brexit campaign–a largely xenophobic campaign–succeeded. But we’re such an inclusive society! Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony said so!

What would hyperreal sports broadcasting look like, if it acknowledged the political context of these events? Maybe a little box in the corner of the screen for each soccer match in Qatar, indicating how many people had to die in the construction of that particular stadium. Or possibly with shout-outs for ad campaigns like the one from gambling firm PaddyPower in the UK–they’re donating £10,000 for every goal Russia scores to LGBTQ charities. It’s a gimmick, but at least it’s acknowledging somethingabout the wider context of what’s happening, and in a way that slides neatly into the wall-to-wall gambling advertising that you get in many countries around big profile sporting events.

Even better would be sports broadcasts including “both sides” coverage of boycott campaigns against specific competitions, or international organizations like FIFA, with activists given a platform–CGI graphics and all–within the larger pre-hype and post-match analysis to make their case. All too often, the politics surrounding an event like the World Cup (like the news that women in Iran are now allowed to watch the tournament for the first time at public screenings at the national stadium) are boosted for their feel-good factor, as if they’re of the same heartwarming fluffiness as a story about how tidy Japanese fans are. Even the most basic of steps–sticking that “men’s” in front of every “World Cup”–would be a start.

It’s not just about contrarians being there as killjoy reminders of what’s outside the screen, there to ruin the spectacle; it’s about the self-awareness of the spectacle itself. Give the hyperreality of the World Cup to those denied the ability to only see it as entertainment, and make it impossible to only pay half-attention to it when working on spreadsheets with Tom from accounts.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Playing the Field section, which examines how innovations in sports affect the wider world. Click the logo to read more.