Why the double standard in professional sports when it comes to Palestinian rights?

Gerry ChidiacThis month marks 30 years since the start of the Rwandan Genocide. I still feel profound embarrassment when I educate my students about this topic because the apathy of people like myself was a major factor contributing to the deaths of nearly a million people.

The words of Aaron Bushnell, the American serviceman who recently self-immolated, therefore deeply resonate in my conscience, as they do in millions of others: “Many of us ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or Apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?’ The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.”

Before the terrorist attack on Israel and its subsequent assault on Gaza began in October, I watched a lot of sports, especially professional and international sports. I can no longer do so. I have tried, but I simply cannot. The moral inconsistencies are too glaring.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the sports world embraced its principles and imposed sanctions. The International Soccer Federation (FIFA), the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), and many other international sporting bodies suspended Russia and its primary ally Belarus.

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Following the attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Hockey League (NHL), and the National Football League (NFL) promptly expressed support for Israel.

Few would argue against the notion that children are precious and innocent and that any child’s death in armed conflict is a tragedy. Since 2022, nearly 600 children have lost their lives in Ukraine. On Oct. 7 alone, Israel reported the deaths of 38 children. It’s probable that the number of Palestinian children killed by the Israeli military since Oct. 7 is in the thousands.

Yet, no international sporting body has sanctioned the State of Israel, and no professional sports league in North America or Europe has expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people. On the contrary, athletes and fans have been sanctioned for expressing empathy toward a population that has been under constant assault for the last six months. At least two professional soccer players in Europe have been suspended for making pro-Palestinian statements. When fans of the Scottish soccer team Celtic waved Palestinian flags and sang in unison, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the team was fined by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).

The only active athlete in North American sports to make any pro-Palestinian statement was NBA star Kyrie Irving, who wore a Keffiyeh during a press conference last November. Current professionals are a far cry from NFL stars Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett, who stood up for the rights of both African Americans and Palestinians. Kaepernick paid for his integrity with his career.

It also needs to be pointed out that the lack of moral consistency puts amateur athletes of conscience into a difficult bind. The Irish national women’s basketball team expressed concern about having to play Israel in a European qualifying match. The Israeli squad responded with accusations of antisemitism toward the Irish and by posting intimidating pictures with machine guns at their training facility. The Irish were told that their team would face sanctions if they did not play Israel, and the two squads engaged in an awkward game in a neutral setting.

This happened although “FIBA Competition Regulations include safeguarding the safety of the players, officials, and fans, not allowing menacing, intimidating or unsportsmanlike behaviour.”

It seems that, with rare exceptions, sporting bodies will only take a stand when victims of violence are white.

I see all human beings as human. I cannot support racism and hypocrisy in the world of athletics. Boycotting these sports is necessary if I am to maintain a personal sense of moral consistency.

Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages and genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.

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