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Perspectives | Issue 11

Navigator’s folio of ideas, insights and new ways of thinking

What good are sports without their soul?

November 18, 2022
Thomas Ashcroft
Thomas Ashcroft | Chief of Staff, Office of the Executive Chairman and Senior Consultant
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Nothing intersects culture, politics and business quite like sports. At their best, sports organizations serve as bastions of the community and espouse a purpose beyond victory at any price. At their worst, they function as vehicles for oppression and exploitation.

Regrettably, recent events demonstrate that professional sports are drifting toward a preoccupation with profit and power at the expense of social value. This was forcefully demonstrated last year when several elite soccer clubs banded together proposing to ring-fence competition at the highest level with a European Super League. The plan faltered after vicious backlash from fans who, with their unwavering loyalty, had built the clubs into powerhouses. Many people thought this saga might spark an industry-wide reckoning, a warning to franchise owners and league executives to curb greed and reward allegiance, but the trend toward enhancing profit at all costs seems only to be growing stronger.

Lately, professional sporting broadcasts have seen a dramatic increase in advertisements for gambling services. The deluge, brought on by developments in the United States and Canada making single-event betting legal, has exposed North American fans to the cutthroat and compulsive world of easily accessible wagering. The United Kingdom, one of the first countries to embrace the sports betting industry, is now contending with a gambling epidemic. In response, the government has banned the use of credit cards for wagering, commissioned studies into its long-term implications, and is expected to ban betting companies from sponsoring soccer jerseys. Conversely, in the U.S., with sports betting legalization steadily expanding state by state, some colleges are actively promoting gambling services to their own students, receiving compensation for every person they help sign up.

Whatever your opinion of gambling, the proliferation of ads selling services where users can place infinite bets with just a few clicks puts fans and vulnerable communities at risk. Sports organizations must do better at regulating and diversifying corporate partnerships. In Canada, government statistics show that disadvantaged people are more susceptible to gambling problems, and that the number of gambling activities available increases the risk of addiction and related issues.

Even more problematic than the rise of gambling seduction is the renaissance of an age-old phenomenon: sportswashing. Adolf Hitler did it in 1936; the Athenians perhaps created it when they splurged on chariots in the 416 BC Olympics to impress the ancient Greek world. Today, sports remain a vessel through which the powerful try to shape external perceptions.

Following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, Formula One decisively exited Russia. Ostensibly a principled decision, the same reasoning did not apply to the recently launched Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia, which continues despite the kingdom’s abhorrent human rights record.

The tacit support of the kingdom reached self-parody at this year’s Montreal Grand Prix when a driver donned a shirt protesting Canadian oilsands while simultaneously wearing a helmet adorned with sponsor Saudi Aramco’s logo, the world’s largest oil producer and most profitable company. Not only does sportswashing obfuscate the crimes of regimes like Saudi Arabia, it also puts meaningful activism at direct odds with corporate interests.

A recent poll by Discover, Navigator’s research arm, found that 64 per cent of respondents agreed that Canadian sports organizations and stakeholders could do much more to raise awareness of known human rights abuses by governments that host major sporting events. Canadian media, therefore, should approach this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar with revitalized scrutiny. The tournament will be set against the backdrop of thousands of dead migrant workers who built the stadiums under conditions akin to slave labour. As co-host of the next World Cup, Canada is well-positioned to take a stand.

As the Roman poet Juvenal famously said: “Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.” Modern sports have become circuses, tools for despots and a means for the rich to get richer at the expense of the community. Their soulless nature saddens fans who want the teams they love to stand, more than mere machines of profit, as tangible representations of communal identity and spirit. Maybe this year’s World Cup is the perfect venue for a long overdue revolt.

agree that Canadian sports organizations and stakeholders could do a lot more to raise awareness of known human rights abuses by governments that host major sporting events.

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About the author:

Thomas Ashcroft
Thomas Ashcroft | Chief of Staff, Office of the Executive Chairman and Senior Consultant
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Thomas is Chief of Staff to Navigator’s Executive Chairman. Specializing in complex strategy and public affairs mandates, Thomas also oversees the operations of the executive office and manages the work of the Executive Chairman.  

In his career Thomas has worked with executive teams, boards of directors and organizations on matters of corporate governance, issues management and strategy implementation across numerous sectors including finance, technology, media, energy, nonprofit and government. He also advises private individuals and works internally on important firm initiatives. 

He is a graduate of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, where he completed a master’s degree studying international relations with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region and soft power strategy. Prior to moving to Canada, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from Newcastle University. He also worked in the office of British MP Dominic Grieve who then served as Attorney General and subsequently Chair of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. 

He possesses a deep knowledge of policy issues and stays informed on developments in international relations and Canadian and British politics. He has qualifications in economics and finance and a keen interest in business strategy and corporate affairs. In his spare time, Thomas plays rugby and enjoys travelling. 

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