Nobody really knows how many workers in Qatar have died wrongful deaths in constructing the infrastructure to host the 2022 World Cup. But people have died for our entertainment. How should we, as fans and players, react to this? Before getting into my question, I have to make two preliminary points.
Firstly, I say ‘wrongful deaths’ because people die all the time, and people sometimes die on construction sites. Not all of these are wrongful: accidents happen, and that is a risk of any major construction project. But if - as in Qatar - working conditions are poor, if workers must work in the 50 degree heat of the midday sun, if workers must live in awful labour camps, then we are in the realm of wrongful deaths. And it is pretty obvious why these deaths (and the exploitation that goes alongside) are morally wrongful: workers aren’t given the protection that they deserve, they’re treated as fungible things not people, and they’re sacrificed in pursuit of profit and glory.
Secondly, you might see statistics that say 6,500 workers died. But that is both over- and under-inclusive. It includes all deaths of migrant workers, whether or not they were wrongful. They could have died from heart disease or a car crash. But this number is under-inclusive, too; Qatar does not keep detailed records of worker deaths or the cause of worker deaths, so estimates are based on statistics provided by the home-countries of these migrant workers. This number only includes statistics from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, yet several other countries send large numbers of workers to Qatar. Further, there is the fact that some of this infrastructure would have been constructed regardless of the World Cup, so it isn’t clear how many deaths are linked directly to the World Cup.
FIFA have wronged us because by watching (or playing in) the World Cup, we fans (and players) are implicated in these deaths.
Despite the uncertainty over the numbers, it nonetheless is clear that too many people have died to bring us this World Cup and these deaths are a moral horror. But my aim is not to probe the moral horror itself, but to try to explain why this might affect fans and players, how FIFA have wronged us, suggest why a boycott might be worthwhile, and end with a reflection on a broader problem: sportswashing.
FIFA have wronged us because by watching (or playing in) the World Cup, we fans (and players) are implicated in these deaths. But the way we fans will be implicated, and the way that players will be implicated, is very indirect. We aren’t the ones who awarded the World Cup to Qatar, nor are we the ones who pursue policies that mean that so many people died in pursuit of this goal. It’s not like we kill people by watching. Rather, the worry is that we somehow condone this: we will watch, players will play and try to win, despite what happened. The deaths were, to us, worth it for there to be a World Cup for us to enjoy.
And that’s what makes the fact that FIFA awarded Qatar the World Cup so galling. We knew five years ago that people were dying for this World Cup, yet FIFA would not take it away from Qatar. FIFA’s actions haven’t just implicated FIFA in Qatar’s wrongdoing, they have implicated us in wrongdoing. For a normal World Cup (though there are exceptions: Italy in 1934 and even Russia in 2018 might trouble us), we could watch (or play) without even worrying that we were somehow condoning evil. But it also leaves fans in a slightly hopeless position: they could boycott it, but what’s the point in that if the competition will go ahead anyway?
Players are in a different situation to the fans. Without players, the tournament cannot go ahead. They, either as individuals or as a larger group, could boycott the tournament: nobody is obligated to play football. At the level of entire teams, Norway may well boycott the World Cup. It’s clear already that some Norwegian clubs, and many fans, are opposed to competing in the World Cup. Because of the way that the fans have an influence over the running of clubs and the running of the football federation, there is a small but realistic chance of a boycott. Given the fact Norway have several very strong players, and one world-class one in Erling Haaland, this would be no empty statement: Norway are by no means favourites, but they have a realistic chance of doing well in the tournament, so by boycotting they would also be cutting themselves off of the chance of sporting success.
Players are in a different situation to the fans. Without players, the tournament cannot go ahead. They, either as individuals or as a larger group, could boycott the tournament: nobody is obligated to play football.
There are arguments against a players’ boycott: football associations will lose out on income, could be expelled from future competitions, and, allegedly, a boycott could have bad consequences for the migrant workers involved (not that things can get much worse for the dead). Perhaps the attention already drawn to Qatari working conditions will make things safer in future. Further, many of the harms involved here have happened already: people have died in constructing this infrastructure, and given that construction will likely slow, fewer people will die in future. And does it just render these deaths for nothing? If there is no World Cup, these people seemed to die for no reason at all.
Many of these seem to me to be weak and self-serving justifications for indulging in the World Cup, especially when compared with the idea that by watching or playing in it, we condone the evil that happened.
I want to finish by focussing on a broader problem in football. The considerations I have paid attention to have concerned Qatar hosting the World Cup in 2022. But it is also worth thinking about the phenomenon that sits behind why Qatar would want to host the World Cup: sportswashing. Thinking about this might give us one further reason to protest - or boycott - this World Cup.
Sportswashing is when vicious regimes use sports to ‘prop up their image by investing in clubs and getting major events and championships to their country.’ States, or prominent individuals (often tied to the state), purchase clubs or provide sponsorship - or host a World Cup - and in doing so endear themselves to fans, who are more likely to ignore or accept their human rights abuses. By hosting the World Cup, Qatar can wash away some of its human rights abuses. Of course, their aim isn’t to get rid of these abuses, rather it is to make us ignore those abuses while growing to like the abusers. We are often happy to overlook the moral failings of those we like, especially when the moral wrongdoers benefit us in other ways (see: Newcastle takeover 'sportswashing, plain and simple', says Amnesty).
If the World Cup doesn’t happen, or if it is drastically less prominent because half of the teams boycott it or millions of fans ignore it, Qatar’s efforts to sportswash just fail. And this sends a message: if your aim is to endear yourself to fans so that they overlook your human rights abuses, then you had better make sure that your human rights abuses aren’t so egregious that they lead to you losing out on, say, hosting the competition (or owning the club) that lets you sportswash, and thus losing the opportunity to endear yourself to the fans. More fundamentally, if we fans refuse to be lured in by those who try to seduce us, we neuter their efforts to launder their reputations.
By hosting the World Cup, Qatar can wash away some of its human rights abuses. Of course, their aim isn’t to get rid of these abuses, rather it is to make us ignore those abuses while growing to like the abusers.
This means there is more of a case for a fan boycott: it’s not that it will help those who have died already, but that it will thwart future attempts to justify bad regimes. There is a self-interested reason to hope for that: we will no longer be implicated in evil. But there is also a humanitarian consideration, a hope that a boycott could help thwart these human rights abuses in the first place: if you can’t whitewash your reputation for egregious human rights abuses, you might just have to start treating people better in order to become involved in prestigious sporting events and have that rub off on your reputation.
The considerations I’ve offered in favour of boycotting the World Cup are not exactly precise or irrefutable. Certainly, something depends on the factual details - just how egregious are the working conditions, just how many people died? Then there is the moral issue: we’d be somehow condoning this suffering, but I haven’t said to what extent we’d be doing this, or specified exactly why that would be bad. Part of the reason why I haven’t done that is because I do not know: there is no doubting that these workers’ deaths were horrifying and unnecessary, but really how important is our role here as fans? I think it is worth thinking about the World Cup, and thinking about the extent to which we would be implicated in wrongdoing by watching it, but I don’t have answers. I’ll have done something if I’ve just managed to persuade you that we need to think much more about our own role here.
No doubt there is an element of self-interest to my wavering on whether to ignore the World Cup. As Barry Glendenning put it in The Guardian, writing about playing rather than watching: ‘Following our moral compass and railing against obvious discrimination is all very well until it threatens to derail the possibility of travelling to and winning the World Cup.’ So, too, with watching it. Researching and writing this piece affected me much more than I expected. I deeply want England to win the World Cup, but I’m not sure I want them to win this World Cup, because I’m not sure I even want them to play. And I can’t shake a nagging sense that I shouldn’t watch the World Cup. But I also think I probably will watch it, and I’m concerned that if I do watch the World Cup, it’s because I’ll be ignoring these moral wrongs for my own entertainment.
Thanks to the folks who run Josimar’s Twitter account for clarifying a few questions I had on Norwegian football. And thanks to the Society of Applied Philosophy for a short-term postdoctoral research grant that allowed me to write this piece.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.