In recent years, international sport has become immensely commercialized and professionalized. But these trends have undergone rapid change with the intervention of woke activism. People from all walks of life who were once brought together simply by a shared interest in a particular sport or team now increasingly articulate their allegiance to the teams they support through their commitment to extraneous social and political causes.
This incorporation of the politics of social justice—and opposition to it—into sporting activities has produced a battlefield on which players are seemingly expected to engage one another in terms that are framed by those politics. Those who refuse to conform are hounded for their apostasy. The case of footballer Idrissa Gueye illustrates this tendency.
On the 17 May 2022 International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, Paris St-Germain players took to the field in a football strip featuring a rainbow in support of the LGBT community—but Gueye was absent. According to team manager Mauricio Pochettino, Gueye missed the game for “personal reasons.” The 32-year-old Senegalese national player is alleged to have refused to wear the shirt displaying the rainbow flag because it conflicted with his religious beliefs.
The French Football Federation has urged Gueye to “issue a public apology” or to clarify that the allegations surrounding his refusal to play are “unfounded.” The player is now under fire for not setting the record straight publicly.
In many Muslim majority countries, homosexuality is illegal under the prevailing system of Islamic law. In Senegal, it can carry a hefty prison sentence. Many of the laws in Senegal condone discrimination—not only against gay people, but also against women and non-Muslims.
But Gueye has committed no crime, has harmed no one and has called for no one to be harmed. He is not an authority on social or political causes either in his native Senegal or in France, the country where he works as a professional football player. His job is kicking a ball. Has he been targeted merely because his religious beliefs have allegedly come into conflict with a public display of activism demanded by his employer?
Western society takes pride in espousing the values of secularism, free speech and freedom of religion for all—and this must include the freedom to hold religious beliefs, as well as to reject them.
In free societies, people are not obliged to kneel before symbols and slogans they might not believe in or wish to endorse. Neither are they held accountable for having intolerant views—unless they manifest these views in words or actions that incite violence or hatred. For footballers, the pitch is their place of work. It seems wrong that, in order to earn a living, any individual should be required to proclaim support for any political movement or ideology.
For many, the rainbow flag simply reflects pride in or tolerance for the LGBT community. But there is significant debate within the gay community about the best ways to pursue gay rights advocacy. Not all gay people agree with the initiatives and campaigns to which the rainbow symbol is regularly attached.
Demanding virtue-signalling gestures from sportspeople probably achieves little in terms of eradicating homophobia. Instead of attacking one player for refusing to wear a rainbow shirt, we should be protesting against the club itself. The Paris-St Germain club is owned by the emir of Qatar—a country in which homosexuality is punishable by death.
Likewise, the club Newcastle United was recently taken over by Saudi Arabia—an authoritarian state with an appalling human rights record, which has been carrying out atrocities in Yemen for years with impunity.
England’s upcoming 2022 Qatar World Cup opponent, Iran, has barred women from entering football stadiums. It was only after the death of Iranian football fan Sahar Khodayari—who set herself on fire over fears that she would be jailed for trying to attend a football match in disguise—that a FIFA directive threatened to ban Iran from international competitions. But this proved an empty threat. Iran is still imposing its misogynistic policies on women—and competing in major football tournaments.
In March 2022, Iranian women were once again barred from entering stadiums—this time at the last minute. Chaos ensued and security guards are alleged to have attacked women with pepper spray and tear gas.
The upcoming FIFA World Cup is going to be hosted by Qatar—a state notorious for discriminating against people on the basis of their gender, sexuality and religious beliefs, and which has been been criticized by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for exploiting migrant workers. This has met with little protest.
As of February 2021, according to an analysis published by the Guardian, 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar since it won its World Cup bid.
Nobody has kneeled in honour of the dead, no resignations have been offered, and no protests have been mounted against these large, powerful organizations that have yet again failed to use their influence to hold authoritarian states accountable for their routine mistreatment of vulnerable people, including women and gay people and for their casual indifference to human suffering.
Socially conservative attitudes to sexuality and gender embedded in theology remain commonplace today among ethnic and religious minorities living in the UK—and in much of Europe. We should not be focused on hounding individuals from these communities—even prominent sportspeople—into participation in collective public virtue-signalling gestures. This is unlikely to promote a more cohesive society, in which individuals with different perspectives can peacefully coexist. Clearly, ideas and practices that conflict with western norms on human rights should be challenged—but refusing to wear a rainbow shirt is not one of them. It is not just to demand such gestures from players in the west anymore than it would be just if a French or English player competing in Senegal were ordered to recite the Quran before kick-off.
Moreover, gestures of support like taking a knee or displaying rainbow flags remain farcical unless they are accompanied by concrete action that is likely to help protect the lives of affected people in the west and beyond. Demanding that professional sportspeople display political or religious symbols as a condition of participation in sport will only undermine the recreational spirit that has traditionally governed sporting competition.
Sport should be a means of bringing people together across political, ethnic, religious and national divides. It can only perform this role once again if it ceases to play host to divisive political gestures and symbolism.