The change towards the new normal of the sports industry started on all levels. In order to achieve the still undefined silver lining, cooperative and strong partnerships were needed on all levels and between different sports, governments, the private sector, civil society and other parties, as elaborated in the Agenda 2030 by the United Nations (United Nations, 2015).
I want to outline my biggest learning through three subcomponents that include the different levels of analysis: micro (1), meso (2) and macro (3).
1 The power paradigm – from sorganisational to athlete centricity
In the course of subjecting the practice of sport to the laws of the market and the ongoing sprofessionalisation of the whole, conflicts of objectives between the interests of the federations and those of the athletes became increasingly clear and difficult to disguise.
Independent athlete sorganisations were formed all over the world, and the movement was able to take the sporting federations down a peg or two. These external structures within the sporting industry made the most important sporting stakeholder, the IOC, move forward from being a reactive sorganisation to proactively deliver a “service of the harmonious development of humankind”, as declared in Fundamental Principle 2 of the Olympic Charter (IOC, 2020). In the past, when confronted with controversial debates around the involvement in sports diplomacy, athlete rights and severe human rights violations directly related to its member associations, it responded to heated political arguments only when being asked. The IOC finally acted after its silence had left it complicit for many years.
The Olympic Movement owes this to its most important stakeholders: the athletes. This is why athletes now have the freedom to express and to stand up for social change autonomously. Important topics of race, gender, equality, and politics are not accompanied anymore by a ‘Just stick to sports’ mentality. We have come a long way from “Shut up and dribble” (Galily, 2019) and are accepting athletes as part of public discourse. Athletes are not ‘disturbing’ a sporting event when they are protesting for a good cause; they are listened to and more importantly: they are heard.
The majority of these controversies surrounded black athletes and we had to question ourselves: How inclusive are we towards athletes from marginalised groups? Elite sport needed a push to adapt to the changing times, away from being at expense of the most vulnerable. The sports industry understood that internationally srecognised human rights of athletes are the basis of everything that it delivers. International Centres for SafeSport, designed after the learnings provided by the first of its kind in the US (Gurgis & Kerr, 2021), are now the backbone to prevent, mitigate and account for adverse human rights impacts.
The fight against maltreatment is further strengthened, as well as the uncomplicated access to an effective remedy by the cooperation of sport and state-level institutions and services.
Why is that so important? In fact, an absence of a binding and standing human rights policy and capacity across international sports and, as a consequence, no recourse to dispute resolution through such channels make cases related to human rights difficult to handle both for sorganisations and affected athletes. It shows that although the specific nature of sports is acknowledged, we need close ties with federal or state agencies in order to allow all athletes the safe, fair and peaceful sporting journey they deserve.
2 Opening of the closed-shop system
During my own 4-year Bachelor of Arts and my 2-year Master of Science in sports management, I never had the chance to dive into the geopolitical and human rights questions that form an integral part of the modern sporting landscape. I had the personal and subjective feeling that students and young professionals were often very uncritical of the sports business, as it is regarded as a privilege to work in the field you love.
For me personally, the year 2021 was once again sort of a turning point for research and practice. The controversial political discussions of and within sports during the then Covid pandemic resulted in a more critical interest for the bigger picture we operate in. That sport and society are intertwined, and we cannot evade responsibility when forming a bubble to proceed with business as usual. We are now living in an era where you are getting this cross-sfertilisation and creation of a shared understanding of what it means to work in the global sports industry.
Coming back to my argument about the sport management student who unquestioningly accepts or is willing to subordinate to the status quo of the sports industry.
It depends whether you are a student studying in Doha, Beijing, Washington DC or Berlin, because your critical thinking and awareness is very often culturally prescribed. That is why it is key to get the students talking to each other in a bilateral exchange. Exchanging views and ideas on how sport is in their countries helps to build a common understanding. A common understanding of a shared language and a renewed understanding of diversity and collaboration. Together, we worked very hard across the years to establish a widely accepted toolkit on mainstreaming the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in sports. It is of utmost importance to showcase and promote the contribution of sports and best sports practices in relation to the SDGs by relevant stakeholders including United Nations entities, Member States, sports-related organisations, non-governmental organisations, sports associations, foundations, civil society, academia and the private sector (SDGF, 2018).
And the hard work finally paid off: We have established a global sports university! A lot of business schools and universities re-thought or re-framed their curricula in terms of the SDGs. It is once again the universal standard where countries across the world have signed up to this. It is very important that sport management, sport business and sport programs more generally are created with explicit and specific reference to the SDGs.
The most important thought-provoking impulse and the first step toward righteousness: raising the awareness of the people, especially the next generation. The new professionals of the sporting industry have shifted it from a closed-shop to an open exchange platform that is constantly willing to learn and grow.
3 Sport as the credible driver for change
Not so long ago, greenwashing, pinkwashing and sportswashing were prominent connotations with the sports industry as a whole. Sarcastically, one could speak of a ‘clean sport’. Leading the way with fair play on and off the field was always a predominantly used phrase in the sports industry. It was only in the last few years that we talked the talk and finally walked the walk.
There is a common understanding in the industry that climate change is not only an external threat affecting sports as a whole, but that sport is in many ways an important contributor to the climate crisis, e.g through fan travel or infrastructure. Environmental standards and sustainability requirements are now formalised in governance structures to streamline efforts across all sports stakeholders and transparently report towards environmental agencies. Furthermore, sports at all levels in the world, from small scale community projects to large scale major sport events, can contribute to and benefit from sustainability initiatives. As already discussed on the basis of the global sports university, good practice and know-how is widely disseminated. Only through leading by example, sports can promote purposeful change and, in the long run, enhance a holistic responsible day-to-day consumer behaviour.
Football advertising used as soft power can change the conversation about a country, getting people to think about a country in a different way, de-mystifying certain aspects of the political agenda. While we focused mainly on the negative aspects under the name of sportswashing, we have changed our perspective. By definition, soft power initiatives are designed to build a nation’s image, create a platform for dialogue, and engender trust in relationships with others (Chadwick, Widdop & Burton, 2020). By the creation of a credible international sporting platform based on human rights, the goals of sport are now based equally on social, ecological and economic criteria. These values serve as a type of moral compass, particularly aimed at preventing contradictions for the hosting of major sporting events or worldwide partnerships. We stand behind an inclusive, integrative and sustainable community connected by the passion of sport.
The practice of highlighting one strategic communicative aspect in order to soften or downplay aspects of its reputation considered negative is not restricted to a state only. Sporting sorganisations were often showcasing themselves as extremely LGBTQI+ friendly without acknowledging the fact that in some sports as football, we had no openly living non hetero-sexual athlete actively pursuing a career. The same rhetoric can be applied to the fight against dicrimination, often described as symbol politics. Nowadays, we have increased the awareness of an inclusive sporting environment through a multi-channel approach: we accelerated the representation of underrepresented groups in all sorganisational functions, credibly collaborated with sponsors and integrated fan groups and clubs in a collaborative debate. We provide funding for social, educational and information activities for NGOs active in the field of combating all forms of discrimination in sport, and help establishing links to the educational sector.
Yes, sport has not the power to change the world and transform dictatorships into democracies. But we were able to create strong collaborative and specific human rights networks in the field of sports and anti-discrimination across different sports and countries.
A new normal
The field of sports has long been defined and spontaneously associated with high competitiveness, closely linked to the zero-sum game theory and the winning-losing dialectics. Nevertheless, going from the micro-level of the competition on the field, with teams or athletes playing against each other, to a macro-level one as described above, sports provides us with a resourceful field for a collaborative (business) approach and more than just an opportunity for successful social partnerships (Klischewski & Simion, 2019). From the autonomy of sport to the partnership of sport model – we are committed and consistent shapers of a sustainable social structure. It may come as no surprise that my biggest learning of the last two decades is the acknowledgment of our collective cognitive bias. While we were so focused on personally winning, we forgot about all those actors who were falling irrevocably by the wayside. What bodes well for the future is that we have started with our own responsibility and do not shuffle it off on to succeeding generations. Sports for future, a claim finally filled with life!