The Mesut Ozil Controversy: How Arsenal’s Response Explains Politics in Modern Sports

By Charlie Whiteley

China’s strict censorship policy has again challenged the values of a major global brand. Arsenal Football Club player Mesut Ozil recently spoke out against the Chinese treatment of Uighur Muslims on Twitter, landing both Ozil and Arsenal in serious trouble with the Chinese government. China’s response has been characteristically swift and efficient, with Arsenal games were blacked out for a period of two weeks. Ozil himself has had endorsement deals canceled and his video game character deleted from the most popular Chinese football video game.  

Ozil referenced the accused human rights abuses of China towards Uighur Muslims, an ethnic minority within China. Ozil, who is Muslim, has been outspoken in his political beliefs on other occasions, such as criticizing the German National Team and publicly supporting controversial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The more noteworthy aspect of this story however is Arsenal’s neutral response to the issue. The club have refused to back Ozil, instead stating, “The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.” 

The rationale for Arsenal’s passive response is apparent through its business interests within China. China’s 1.4 billion people and growing middle class make it the optimal market for top clubs to establish their brands in. A typical Chinese fan is highly engaged on social media, willing to support more than one team, and frequent consumers of club merchandise. This evidences the incredible growth opportunities in China. For a competitive club like Arsenal, these millions of pounds are essential to future success.  

Arsenal’s conflict with China is similar to the NBA’s. In October, the NBA was briefly banned in China due to Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s pro Hong Kong tweet. Similarly, the NBA responded in a neutral and cautious way. Two of the most important NBA figures, league commissioner Adam Silver and LeBron James both called for calm, stating Morey’s statement was unnecessary, with James even calling it misguided. Basketball is China’s most popular sport, with the Chinese Basketball Association claiming 300 million Chinese citizens play. With a five-year Chinese television deal worth 1.2 billion pounds, the NBA chose to limit damage and condemn Morey.  

These two events bring into question the role of sport in politics and international relations. Should sports teams and athletes involve themselves in politics? If so, do teams need a consistent platform to stand on? Traditionally, sport has brought people together, uniting different people and ideas into a singular passion. The Olympics, a celebration of athletic and national pride, fosters two weeks of inclusivity and peace. At the same time, politics in sport has created meaningful global change. Teams like the 1995 South African rugby team and Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers demonstrate the positive impact tough political stances can have. 

The Premier League and NBA both engage in commendable campaigns for political and social change. Both have done a tremendous job in promoting LGBTQ tolerance and acceptance. The Premier League has taken a tough stance on racism during matches, and is driving reforms within football’s governing body, FIFA. Stances on Hong Kong and Uighur Muslims present an entirely different challenge to sport’s governing bodies. These issues involve direct monetary consequences and present a more substantial opportunity cost of political statements. While league platforms on racism and LGBTQ rights are nearly universally praised in the West, western stances on Hong Kong and Uighur Muslims are not popular within China. Keeping a consistent stance on these issues is tremendously difficult and requires financial sacrifice. 

These two events show that sports teams and athletes choose financially beneficial causes to get behind, portraying their decisions as politically motivated. This motivation is understandable from a business standpoint. China and the rest of Asia will be an immense part of international sport’s future, so the responses used by Arsenal and the NBA were almost necessary. If the Premier League and NBA truly believed in their stated political platform, China’s financial backlash would be insignificant. Sports leagues should decide whether to consistently engage in politics or stray away. Picking and choosing specific instances to politically participate does not make an organization a respected political actor. Standing against injustice and accepting the financial consequences of an unpopular opinion, does.

Image Source: Wall Street Journal

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not represent the views of The St Andrews Economist. 

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