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Dribbling responsibility: What do we owe to the real losers of the World Cup?

In last week’s post, Siba drew our attention to one of the most widely noted events of this summer, the FIFA World Cup 2014. While taking notice of a wide range of ethical issues arising in the context of the World Cup, the discussion focussed on the organizational status of FIFA and the question of whether the tax exemptions it enjoys (and its status as a charity) are justified from a moral point of view. This week, we would like to follow Siba’s steps by raising some ethical questions regarding the World Cup and similar mega sporting events (e.g. the Olympic Games) from a different, but complementary angle. Setting aside the issue of taxation, we are concerned with some of the other problems anticipated in last week’s post and the responsibilities related to them.
As noted last week, the realization of major sporting events like the FIFA World Cup can come into tension with concerns of distributive justice and human rights. With regard to distributive justice, the public expenditure required by an event of the size of the World Cup raises the question of social opportunity costs. According to estimates, the infrastructure expenses incurred by the Brazilian government in preparation for the World Cup amount to approximately $11bn. If put to alternative uses, these resources could arguably have contributed to significant advances in education, health, and other field of social investment. An ethical evaluation of the decision to invest in the World Cup will of course need to take into account the revenues flowing from the event, their distribution within society, as well as, for example, the future value of infrastructure projects. Whatever the result of such an evaluation would be in the case of Brazil, it is clear that, at least under certain circumstances, a government’s decision to host the World Cup can come at the price of unjust social opportunity costs.
In addition to the question of priorities of public investment, there are a number of ways in which the realization of mega sporting events can come into conflict with human rights concerns. Relevant issues include eviction and involuntary displacement of people in the wake of construction projects, police brutality in reaction to public protests and demonstrations, and the implementation of labour standards. The potential severity of the latter issue was recently brought to light by media reports highlighting the labour conditions of migrant workers in Qatar, the host of the FIFA World Cup in 2022. According to the Guardian, at least 44 Nepalese workers died in Qatar during a period of only two months. On this basis, the International Trade Union Confederation estimates that up to 4,000 workers could lose their lives while working for World Cup-related projects.
The fact that there is a real risk that the realization of mega sporting events may come into conflict with concerns of distributive justice and human rights raises the question of who should bear responsibility for preventing such conflicts from occurring. One possible answer consists of placing the responsibility exclusively on the government in question. Concerns of distributive justice and human rights are commonly thought to fall into the primary sphere of responsibility of national governments and a government’s decision to apply as a host is entirely voluntary. Therefore, if a successful application would lead a government to neglect its obligations of justice and human rights, then it seems that it is the government in question who is under an obligation to refrain from submitting the application in the first place. Other actors involved in the selection process, such as FIFA as an awarding body, in contrast, may appear to bear no responsibility for the ensuing consequences. This view, at least, seems to be suggested by FIFA’s secretary general Jerome Valcke who observes that “FIFA is not the United Nations. FIFA is about sport,” and thus “cannot be seen as responsible for what’s happening in different countries.”
This view, however, seems to ignore the ethical significance of FIFA’s role in determining World Cup hosts. In the case of some countries, conflicts with concerns of distributive justice and human rights will be foreseeable as early as at the stage of application. Even if justice and human rights are thought to be the primary responsibility of national governments, FIFA seems to be under a duty to prevent these foreseeable conflicts by not awarding the World Cup to such countries. The fact that current bidding rules lack any concern for such conflicts has to count as a clear violation of this duty. This calls for a reform of bidding rules, for example in a way that takes into account a country’s human rights record.
Ultimately, the realisation of mega sporting events such as the World Cup rests on the support of visitors and TV audiences around the world. Insofar as current bidding rules are insufficiently sensitive to ethical concerns, should fans be held responsible for the moral costs of mega sporting events? While this may seem far-fetched to some, it is clear that audiences make the World Cup possible in the first place and have significant power to influence the terms under which it is carried out. One way to exercise this power would be in the form of a viewers’ boycott. We think that in cases in which significant injustices and human rights violations are at stake, such a boycott is what responsibility requires from viewers.
It may be objected that a boycott is an ineffective way for viewers to discharge their responsibility. After all, once a tournament is in the process of being carried out, most moral costs will already have been incurred, such that a boycott will do nothing to prevent them. Nevertheless, a boycott may send a powerful signal to prevent problematic practices in future tournaments and influence the outcome of future bidding processes. In addition, even setting aside consequentialist considerations, one may wonder about the morality of watching the World Cup and other comparable events. In cases where such events have a clearly tainted moral footprint, this seems to raise a question of ethical integrity when it comes to deriving enjoyment from them. So, while you may be preparing for a night in front of the TV to find out who is going to win Brazil 2014, consider the moral costs of mega sporting events. In your view, what do we owe to the real losers of the World Cup?
Sara Amighetti and Florian Ostmann



Florian Ostmann

Florian Ostmann is a PhD candidate in political philosophy at University College London. His research focuses on issues of fairness in international trade and theories of exploitation. Florian’s wider interests include moral theory, bioethics and public health, business ethics, and questions at the intersection between philosophy and economics.


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  1. Sara, Florian, thanks for this. Very interesting. I have a brief comment/question.
    You suggest that the host country, Fifa and the individual viewers can be held responsible for human rights violations and other injustices that result from a certain country hosting the world cup. A country must not bid for the world cup if this undermines its capacity to protect its citizens or of the investment in the world cup can be used differently to benefit those worse in need. But countries are often acting irresponsibly, so the responsibility falls on Fifa who should reform its host selection practice to exclude such countries from bidding. Finally, since it doesn't look like Fifa is willing to take up its responsibility, the responsibility falls on citizens to boycott the event in order to send a message that would compel Fifa to carry out the reform.

    I was wondering if we shouldn't, as a prior step to distributing the responsibility onto individuals, assign it to other states. It seems to me states might have more leverage onto pressuring Fifa than individuals. If states for instance boycott the cup by disallowing their national teams to participate they might have much more impact. (Do you know if this is within the actual authority of states- to disallow the national team from representing the country?) If the EU countries for instance take such a stance, it could have tremendous impact. This is not to say that individuals have no responsibility. They might actually more effectively discharge their responsibility by pressuring their governments to boycott.

  2. Hi Sara and Florian, thanks for this post. Do you think there is something specific about events like these, or are they comparable to other phenomena in which you have connections between richer and poorer countries, and in which vulnerable individuals are harmed (e.g. global supply chains)? In many such cases, one of the biggest problems is how to allocate responsibility. I find approaches that allocate responsibility to those directly involved very interesting, because they help to get away from a picture according to which everybody is somehow implicated in everything, and therefore no one can be held responsible for anything. In the case of sporting events, I think there is a greater responsibility with those who work directly in this area (as sportsmen or as officials). I find Siba’s suggestion to look at countries interesting, too. The problem with holding fans responsible is that, just as consumers, they are very numerous and (relatively) unorganized. This raises questions with regard to feasibility similar to the ones plaguing consumer boycotts…

  3. Hi Siba, thanks for your comment. This is very interesting, I personally hadn't thought of the activity of national teams as being under the control of national governments. I have to admit I don't know to what extent governments have formal (legal) control over national teams. In any case, it seems that governments may be in a position to exercise significant informal influence (e.g. through funding contributions or public campaigns). To the extent to which it is possible, I agree that government intervention promises to be a powerful way to bring about change (among other things, it avoids the coordination problems associated with boycotts or other forms of popular action). Reliance on government intervention, as you suggest, thus definitely seems like an option worth considering as a political strategy. When it comes to assigning *responsibility* to governments themselves, one reservation that comes to mind would be that (democratic) governments depend on and respond to popular opinion. (To the extent to which popular opinion prioritizes seeing the national team play over moral concerns, the leeway of governments will be severely restricted.) But, as you say, the reliance on government leverage as a "tool" is compatible with viewing individual fans (and voters) as the ultimate bearers of responsibility.

  4. Thank you very much Lisa, this is a very interesting question. In response, I would be interested to hear more about the theoretical impetus for the thought that those who are involved in a professional capacity carry a particularly great responsibility.

    Is the thought that they are more directly *causally* responsible for the harms in question? In this case, it would seem to me that the case of the World Cup and the case of international supply chains come apart: While the manager of a firm may be thought to be more directly causally responsible for exploitative working conditions than the consumer at the end of the supply chain, it is less obvious that a professional football player should be more directly causally responsible than her fans for, say, forced evictions of residents in a host country.

    An alternative motivation could be the thought that individuals acting in a professional capacity may be in a particularly powerful position to bring about change, irrespective of their causal relationship to the harms in question. This may be true for some professional positions in the football industry. Whatever the responsibility of individuals in such positions may be, however, I would still be inclined to argue that in a situation in which they fail to live up to their responsibility, the ultimate responsibility rests with fans. Effective interventions by fans certainly face serious coordination challenges, but these challenges do not seem to undermine the moral demand on fans to try to overcome these challenges. What do you think?

  5. I think both models (more direct involvement in harm or more power to bring about change) can apply for different individuals, in different positions. And I don't want to say that fans should not be held responsible at all. But this responsibility needs point where it can crystallize, as it were. For example, fans can support or fail to support a decision by some team/country/whatever to boycott, or threaten to boycott, participation under certain circumstances. They can sign online petitions, etc. So ideally, you'd want some kind of division of labour between those more directly involved and the fans.

  6. Sara, Florian, thanks for the engaging read. I think I would like to push a little further on Lisa’s comment about ‘crystalising’ the idea of responsibility you have in mind here, particularly in the case of fans. The term ‘responsibility’ can be used in a wide variety of different ways and often different conclusions can be drawn about our duties depending on the sense in which we use it. Do you mean, for instance, that fans have causal responsibility for the injustice, that they create the conditions (perhaps the incentives) for it, that they are responsible in the sense we sometimes hold bystanders responsible for not preventing some harm…?

  7. Thanks Sara and Florian for taking up these issues which indeed seemed to be discussed up until the moment the football games began …. and then quickly disappeared into the background. While I would like to see FIFA or national governments take these issues into consideration, this is completely unrealistic as both FIFA and national governments profit enormously from the games and especially from the increased sales, television viewers/commercials and merchandise etc. I also imagine that those viewing the games are most often not those who are truly concerned about the injustice of the events so that leaves us with Siba's suggestion that those directly involved – the players and referees make statements. While I would hate to sound nationalistic, there are a few cases of this happening – and being well publicized – with regard to the Belgian Red Devils. As several players come from economically difficult circumstances, they have made a significant effort to politicize certain issues such as racism, poverty, and sexism. Vincent Kompany, the captain, who created several charitable organizations in Belgium – decided that this year he would donate the equivalent amount of money to doing the same in Brazil. I believe Hazard also built a sports complex in his hometown to provide other children with the safe space sports offered him. Another more public case was the discussion prior to the games about why female referees could not referee during male games. Many of the national teams made public statements in support of female referees and even throated to boycott future games if this question was not taken seriously by FIFA (see http://sports.ndtv.com/fifa-world-cup-2014/news/225213-fifa-world-cup-bring-on-the-women-referees-urges-marta). While highlighting the structural injustice of these events is but a very first baby step, I do think this is the best avenue to pursue. Thoughts?

  8. Thanks for the follow-up to both of you. Andrew – our intended claim was that fans are causally responsible in a morally relevant sense, which means that their responsibility extends beyond that of mere bystanders. I agree with Lisa that their position in the causal chain leading to the harms in question is more remote than that of may other actors, but they are connected to them in the sense that, counterfactually, in the absence of their "participation" the institution of the World Cup would likely soon cease to exist in its current form.
    Lisa, I agree that, in addition to their ability to bring about change, some professional positions in the industry have greater causal responsibility than fans. I'm not sure this is the case for footballers themselves, but certainly for some officials, including, most prominently, FIFA officials, of course. In terms of political strategies to bring about change, I like the idea of a point of 'crystallisation' in thinking about the point(s) in the system to which efforts are most effectively addressed. In terms of moral responsibility (in the sense of blameworthiness and related concepts), I wonder whether it might be more adequate to think of the distribution in the form of a 'ladder' of responsibility that ascends with the proximity of actors to the harms caused, rather than of particular focal points.

  9. Hi Anya, it is indeed striking how rapidly social issues largely disappeared from reporting agenda in the mainstream media as soon as the games started, given that this was the time when highlighting these issues could probably have had the biggest impact. Thanks a lot for providing these examples of players taking a political stance. I hadn't been aware of them, and I agree that they provide a reason for some optimism regarding this avenue to promoting change. Without knowing the details of the cases your mention, one thing I would add is that, while taking a stance against social and political problems of any kind (e. g. poverty and deprivation in general) is certainly laudable, what I would hope for in the context we're discussing is a stance against the specific injustices associated with the realisation of the world cup.

  10. Thanks, both. My initial reaction is similar to the view suggested or invited by Andrew's comments, but, here, I think that it may be important to distinguish two issues. The first relates to whether or not those who watched the World Cup are themselves *morally responsible* for harming others, such as those in Brazil. The second relates to whether those who watched the World Cup are *in some other normally significant way connected* to actions or practices that harm others, such as those in Brazil.

    If we are concerned with the first issue, then there would clearly be something morally unacceptable about watching the World Cup. This follows from the moral presumption against harming. If we are concerned with the second issue, things look more complicated. This is because it becomes a question about compensation. One particularly pressing question concerns to whom the compensation should be owed. In particular, its not clear to me that, when deciding whom to compensate, we ought to prioritise the claims of those in Brazil above the claims of others making claims on our compensation. This looks particularly powerful when the harms suffered by others in other countries is much greater, or when we would be much more effective in meeting others' claims. In short: as a beneficiary of the injustices of the World Cup, why should I prioritise the claims of those in Brazil above the claims of others suffering from global poverty or diseases?

  11. Hi Tom, thanks for this, and apologies for the delayed reply. My replies so far have been guided by thinking about responsibility in the forward-looking sense, and, more specifically, in the sense of duties not to contribute to the harms that we discuss in the post. I do think that watching the world cup can be understood as a causal contribution to the occurrence of such harms and thus as being in conflict with the moral presumption against harming. It still seems to be a separate question whom to hold responsible for providing compensation (to the extent to which this is at all possible) to the victims of these harms once they have occurred. My initial reaction to this question would be to see this responsibility as primarily residing with the host government and those parties in the causal chain that have derived material gains from the World Cup. Given their remote position in the causal chain and the type of benefit that fans derive from watching the world cup, I agree with you that it is not obvious that fans have a duty to engage in compensatory efforts. At the same time, however, I think it is important not to reduce the role of fans to one of mere *benefiting* from injustice, but to consider them as contributors.

  12. Postscriptum: there is now talk in Germany about removing the next world cup from Russia, following the discussions about Russia's behavior in the Ukraine, and the – yet somewhat unclear – role in the downing of M 17. See here for example:

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