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“Black Voices” Reading & Discussion With Channing Joseph, Musa Okwonga In Berlin

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Opinion: The freedom of the sporting press to cover the politics of sport really matters

“If sports writing gets up the noses of the monied interests that target football to launder their cash or reputations, then all the better,” argues Rich Speight

Sports writer and broadcaster Musa Okwonga is one of the leading voices linking social and political issues online
| Photo by Emmanuele Contini/Getty Images

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Those whose careers in sport are directly funded by despotic petrostates like to assure us that football, golf, F1, or boxing will help to change the attitudes toward women, migrant workers, LGBTQ+ people, or even democracy, of violent psychopathic dictators; men such as the Chairman the Saudi Arabian state Public Investment Fund.

When that fails, they simply ask “who are we to judge?”, tell us about deeply-held cultural differences that we simply don’t appreciate, and then engage in some whataboutery of the highest order.

A video circulating online this weekend of squads of Saudi Arabian government officials raiding a shopping centre and removing anything rainbow-coloured lest it turns children gay - itself a triviality compared to the regime of brutality suffered by queer people in that country - reminds us that there’s a hell of a long way to go in this respect. Earlier in the week, it was the news that the Saudis plan to execute an innocent child.

However, if the Saudi petrodollar is paying your mortgage and providing you with a comfortable retirement fund, it’s at least rational to not mix politics and sport. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Whether you’re Eddie Howe or Becky Langley, Phil Mickelson or Ian Poulter, anything outside of your “area of expertise” is basically (and I suspect contractually) out of bounds and, quite literally, more than your job is worth.

It’s not exactly in line with the best traditions of those great sporting leaders who, throughout the history of professional and amateur sports, have shown moral leadership on the issues that cut between what goes on inside their clubs and games and the wider world.

But I guess the Saudis are giving them opportunities they never thought they’d have, so they’re going to keep quiet and take the cash while it lasts. Many people would do the same.

They have taken the decision to put up that simple psychological divider, compartmentalise their role in the operation as equivalent to that of an Uber driver (3.5% owned by PIF, and don’t you forget it), and console their consciences with the pre-prepared PR lines they’ve been handed by the place-men and women who hired them to “simply get on and do a job”.

New Newcastle United Head Coach Eddie Howe Press Conference Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

The same should not be the case with the sporting press. Some Mag fans responded to the tweet quoted above - which merely highlights the much-discussed complicity of the Newcastle United LGBT+ group ‘United with Pride’ and Newcastle’s Labour MP Chi Onwurah in the Saudi sports washing enterprise ongoing north of the Tyne - by pointing out that Adam Crafton, who writes for The Athletic, was going against his employer’s new anti-political policies.

Football fans have been sold subscriptions to The Athletic on the understanding that this is where quality, in-depth, intelligent writing about our sport would be a given an elevated platform, but the statement from Chief Content Officer Paul Fichtenbaum on 8th July seems to have changed all that:

We don’t want to stop people from having a voice and raising their voice for appropriate issues. But there comes a point where something that is a straightforward, “Hey, I’m concerned about guns in America,” for instance, right, that’s an apolitical statement.

It becomes political when you say, “I’m concerned about guns in America and this political party is the reason why we’re having an issue,” right? That’s when it tips over. So again, we don’t want to stop people from having a voice and expressing themselves. We just need to keep it from tipping over into the political space.

There is no bigger political statement that anyone can make than telling a writer that they cannot write about politics. This move by the NYT, as Brandon Contes of the website Awful Announcing observes, suggests that writers can still take about issues affecting sport, but they cannot highlight who is responsible for them.

For example, it is understood that Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United the green light so as not to upset his ally, the murderous tyrant Mohammed Bin Salman. Johnson also supported the European Super League before it turned out that it would be a vote loser.

But now, The New York Times, which owns The Athletic would preclude its writers from mentioning that a government led by a proven liar, with this track record of failing to protect our game, and a Minister in Nadine Dorries who has been shown repeatedly to have a minimal grasp of her brief, is now responsible for legislating to properly regulate English football.

UK Prime Minister Visits Middle East Photo by Stefan Rousseau - Pool/Getty Images

Laura Wagner’s reporting about this issue in The Defector quotes one Athletic staff writer as saying:

This makes no sense. What about Black Lives Matter? Is that a social cause? Who will write about athlete protests? What about trans athletes in sports? Where this policy gets you is that the people who care the most about a particular issue, the people who are most informed about a particular issue, are now the ones who are banned from covering the issue.

There are some wonderful writers across sports media, with clear principles and a sense of what is right and wrong who are not afraid to call out the money, lies, hypocrisy, and dishonesty that lies at the heart of the geopolitical business of 21st-century sport. The World Cup is going to be played in Qatar for a reason, and it is not that country’s love of football.

The great CLR James was the first writer I encountered who brought home the intrinsic links between sport and society, economics and politics. “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” he asked in Beyond a Boundary, echoing the words of Kipling.

Today we have writers and podcasters like Jonathan Wilson, Suzy Wrack, Martin Calladine, and Musa Okwonga (to name but a few) who bring this same sense of intelligence and awareness of social justice to our field.

The move by The Athletic, of all publications, rings alarm bells; their updated Editorial Guidelines read like the conditions of a civil servant’s contract, if not the censorship rules in a dictatorship, rather than the standards expected of people whose job it is to use language to communicate ideas to a discerning public.

I acknowledge and appreciate that The Athletic has, since it moved into the English football market, reinvigorated serious sports writing and rescued the genre from the grips of poorly constructed prose and transfer gossip clickbait.

It’s now well established that that long-form, interesting, well-researched, and considered writing on football has an audience online and a place alongside tactical analysis, match reporting, and speculation on who Alex Neil might bring in for Sunderland's first season back in the Championship.

There are also some fantastic sports people out there who are willing to take a stand and fight for what they, as citizens - as workers - as human beings know is right. They see that their platform and profile can be used to make the world a better place.

In football, we have figures like Marcus Rashford, Megan Rapino, Anita Asante, and Jordan Henderson who speak out and stand up for what they think is right and against the injustices that they see in football and in wider society. They are passionate, intelligent young people who care about the future of the sport, our people, and our planet.

Liverpool v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

They are not unique and this is not new. From Billy Jean King to Bill Shankley, Mohammed Ali to Colin Kaepernick, there have always been politically-aware sportspeople willing to use their positions to make bold statements about important cultural, social, and economic issues, and there always will.

And there have always been the Mike Gattings and the Anthony Joshuas - more than willing to make excuses for the commercial dealings of despots if it’s in their financial interests.

One thing that Roker Report readers have gotten used to over the last few years is our writers and podcasters taking pretty firm and vociferous stands on the social and political issues that we care about, particularly when they directly impact our club, our fans, and our city. Food poverty, racism, homophobia, sexism, human rights, press freedom, and even climate change have all featured and will continue to feature on these pages.

When it comes to these things, each of us with the privilege of a platform has a choice. We can keep in our lanes, writing and talking about nothing that happens outside the boundaries training ground and the Stadium.

That’s absolutely fine, the vast majority of our writers just want to focus entirely on what happens on the pitch, not even commenting on ownership issues, as this is what piques their interest and motivates them to sit down and spend their free time creating content for you to read.

But I have no qualms in saying that Sunderland Association Football Club was utterly wrong to hire a known fascist as its manager. I will not hesitate to highlight and investigate the ethical considerations behind any money that is invested in our club. It would be weird, for me, to cut off that part of my brain entirely when I sit down to write for you.

You personally might be sick of our (or perhaps just my) preaching, but rest assured that the editorial independence and the right of our bloggers and podcasters to say what they think about the world surrounding the football pitch will be undiminished.

PAOLO COCCO/AFP via Getty Images

This publication is part of a long and proud history of fanzine writing in the UK, writers in both football and music zines have used the freedom from commercial considerations they enjoy to raise the issues that matter to them and the people around them.

If it is commercial pressure that has caused the NYT to gag its sports writers, then I suspect they will lose a fair few subscribers in the UK and around the world who expect the honest and unfettered views of their favourite writers to be published uncensored so long as they stay within the law.

If sports writing gets up the noses of the monied interests that target football to launder their cash or reputations, then all the better. And if you don’t like reading about politics with your football... well, there’s a whole load of other articles on Roker Report that you can click on instead.


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