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Washington Spirit partnership with Qatar is troubling

Because of, you know, the slave labor, among other things.

2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar - Previews Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

On Monday, the Washington Spirit announced that the club is taking part in a cultural exchange with Qatar, and that a delegation from the team left for Qatar on December 12 for a one-week stay, during which they’ll do things like tour the Qatar Foundation’s Education City, hit an event with the Qatar women’s national team, tour the National Museum, and put on a soccer clinic with Best Buddies. According to the club announcement, this is part of the United States-Qatar Year of Culture (they’re unveiling the 2021 Year of Culture logo too), and continues on from an event on February 7 when several Spirit staff and players participated in the Qatar National Day of Sport in Washington, D.C.

Said Spirit managing partner Steve Baldwin in the press release:

“During the past year, I have had the opportunity to meet numerous people that I wouldn’t have met without my association with the Spirit. One of those people is Qatar Ambassador, His Excellency Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani. One of the things Ambassador Al Thani and I have discussed repeatedly is the power of sport to bring people together. The Ambassador invited a Spirit Delegation to visit Qatar where we will learn about their country, culture as well as work with the Qatar Women’s National Soccer Team and young girls in Doha. We are also excited to get an exclusive look at the 2022 World Cup preparations. We are honored to represent our country and sport during this trip and are grateful for the invitation extended by His Excellency.”

It would appear that sportwashing has well and truly arrived for the Washington Spirit.

“Sportwashing” is a term that encompasses the use of sports to help improve the reputation of an entity with a poor reputation, usually due to things like human rights violations. Put on a gaudy international tournament where the only things the cameras see are bright, happy fans and players in glitzy stadiums, boost your rep on the world stage. Get a women’s team that often champions equality in multiple arenas to visit your country and ooh and aah over your World Cup prep, and let yourself look like a champion of quality by extension. That’s how it works in theory, anyway.

In reality, most soccer fans are probably all too aware that the 2022 Qatar World Cup is awash in allegations of human rights violations. For years, watch groups like Amnesty International have released reports about the working and living conditions of millions of migrant workers in Qatar, including those building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup.

AI has published several articles detailing the abuse of migrant workers, including unethical recruitment practices, non-payment of wages, lack of recourse for rights violations, and non-encorcement of labor laws. A Guardian investigation in 2013 revealed forced labor on a World Cup infrastructure project and conditions that “amount to modern-day slavery,” as workers had documents confiscated and the inability to leave their place of work while also amassing huge debts to recruitment agents while not being paid wages. Another Guardian investigation in 2019 said that despite laws limiting work to no more than five hours during the summer period due to high temperatures, migrant workers told the Guardian they were still being forced to work in the heat “for up to 10 hours a day.” As recently as August of this year, Human Rights Watch reported that despite some reforms over the years, wage abuse is still widespread, leading to “workers starving due to delayed wages, indebted workers toiling in Qatar only to get underpaid wages, and workers trapped in abusive working conditions due to fear of retaliation.”

Qatar also has laws that discriminate against women and LGBTQ individuals, such as not allowing women the same level of divorce rights as men, limiting inheritance by women, and generally forbidding men and women from “illegal or immoral actions” in the same section forbidding sodomy among males.

The pressures to bring more money and attention to women’s soccer are very real in an industry that (correctly) has long complained of being undervalued, and a partnership that seems to be more in the vein of publicity/diplomatic relations isn’t quite the same as taking money to slap a logo on a billboard. Similarly, I’m not going to lay the blame for this at the feet of players who are getting paid low five figures in a league where job stability is an extreme rarity, although I certainly think it’s fair to ask them to reflect on their values. But I am going to hold Steve Baldwin responsible, and I am going to say that if the club is going to do things like have a Pride Night or champion women’s sports or even believe that their workers deserve to be treated humanely, then they at least need to be aware of the extreme dissonance that arises when partnering with a country whose abuse of workers and overall human rights violations are very well publicized.

In a public statement this summer, as part of the discussion during the NWSL Challenge Cup around anti-Black racism, Baldwin put out this statement:

It’s hard to buy into “justice” as a club philosophy at the moment, though perhaps we need to wait for the team to return to make any kind of encompassing statement. On the other hand, will there be glowing social media posts, or inspirational messages about equality after a visit to the Qatar WNT - a team currently unranked by FIFA as they have either not played more than five matches against officially unranked teams or have been inactive for more than 18 months. Paige Nielsen has already tweeted that Qatar is “more progressive than you may think.”

For the World Cup, perhaps that will be true - for example, under pressure from FIFA, rainbow flags will be allowed in stadiums during the tournament. Will that actually help the LGBTQ people in Qatar after the tournament ends and the cameras leave? Who can say, at this point, although Qatar barely moving the needle on their treatment of migrant workers despite years of global recrimination is perhaps a sign of things to come. The eyes of Spirit and NWSL fans alike will certainly be watching to see what comes of all this, as the delegation is currently mid-trip.

The Washington Spirit did not respond to a request for comment on their reaction to allegations of migrant worker abuse in Qatar, particularly in regards to work on World Cup projects, by the time of publication.

It’s hard to live a morally “pure” life. There’s no way to participate in modern life without someone, somewhere in the chain of capitalism having been exploited. Maybe your cell phone or computer uses parts from a factory that treats its workers badly, maybe your clothes have fibers sprayed by pesticides that poisoned the local water supply, maybe your food was picked by a migrant worker in unsafe and unfair conditions. We live in a flawed system, and to a certain extent we are all culpable of participation in it. Demanding that every partner that every team chooses to work with passes a 100% purity test is simply not going to happen. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. That doesn’t mean we can’t ask for better, that we can’t draw a bottom line somewhere. And if we can’t draw the line at slave labor, then where? If we look at a giant, unabashed case of this is objectively wrong and decide to at best ignore it, and at worst tacitly endorse it anyway, then what is the point of standing for anything at all?

This is a great time for not just the Spirit, but for all the clubs in NWSL to take a moment and consider what futures they want to see for themselves, their players, and their fans, what cultures they want to put in place, what they can and can’t live with. No one is going to get every decision completely right - but we owe it to each other to at least try.