Friday, February 11, 2022
Between the Winter Olympics and the Superbowl, this weekend is a sports-lover's dream. But it can also be a nightmare for others. Next week in my Business and Human Rights class, we'll discuss the business of sports and the role of business in sports. For some very brief background, under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the state has a duty to protect human rights but businesses have a responsibility (not a duty) to "respect" human rights, which means they can't make things worse. Businesses should also mitigate negative human rights impacts. I say "should" because the UNGPs aren't binding on businesses and there's a hodgepodge of due diligence and disclosure regimes that often conflict and overlap. But things are changing and with ESG discussions being all the rage and human rights and labor falling under the "S" factor, businesses need to do more. The EU is also finalizing mandatory human rights due diligence rules and interestingly, some powerful investors and companies are on board, likely so there's some level of certainty and harmonization of standards.
I've blogged in the past about human rights issues in sports, particularly the Olympics and World Cup in Brazil, where hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, FIFA had its own courts, and human rights issues abounded. For more on human rights and megasporting events, see this post about the Russian Olympics. The current Olympics in China and the future World Cup in Qatar have been rife with controversy because of the long-standing human rights abuses in those countries. Some athletes have even called the Winter Olympics the Genocide Olympics.
So whose problem is it? If businesses know that there's almost always some human rights impact with megasporting events and they know sponsorship doesn't really add to the bottom line, should they get out of the sponsorship business all together? Are they complicit or merely (innocent) bystanders?
Here are the questions I've asked my students to consider for class this week.
- My hometown of Miami is vying for a spot to host the 2026 World Cup. What are the obligations of the "state" when it's a city? As the US government begins revising its National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct in accordance with the UNGPs, should a city do more than the national government? Should FIFA look at issues such as the effect of the games on the cities beyond revenue that will enrich only a few?
- Cities have a human rights obligation to protect their citizens but what responsibility do companies have to make sure they don't exacerbate pre-existing homelessness issues?
- Does it matter if the company sponsoring is Nike (directly working with athletes), Coca Cola (providing beverages), or another company that's just an advertiser? Is there a difference in the degree of corporate responsibility (if any)?
- Commentators have accused Nike and other companies of using forced labor in China. Is there a conflict with their support of Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement while also participating in events where there are alleged human rights abuses?
- What about the issue of human trafficking and megasporting events? It's such a big problem that the NFL has partnered with US Customs and Border Patrol for a public service announcement about it in light of the Superbowl. Are public service announcements enough?
- Should athletes boycott events in countries with poor human rights records? How would that affect their sponsorships and their other contractual obligations? A Boston Celtic called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, but who's really listening?
- How do what athletes say about Black Lives Matter and taking a knee square with participating in events in China? Should athletes, who are businesses, just shut up and dribble? If an athlete/businessman like LeBron James takes on Black Lives Matter does he have an equal obligation to protest against the use of forced labor in China?
- FIFA and the International Olympic Committee are corporations that base their human rights policies in part on the UNGPs. They have spoken out against discrimination, human rights, and racism in sport. Is it too much or too little? How far should a company like FIFA or the NFL go before they alienate fans by talking about hot button issues?
- Should fans boycott events that are known for human rights abuses? How does that affect the livelihood of the workers who depend on that revenue? Would a boycott benefit or hurt those who need the support the most?
I look forward to a lively discussion in class on Wednesday about the respective roles and responsibilities of the state, the companies, and the fans. Will you look at sports any differently after reading this post? If you have thoughts, please leave a comment or email me at [email protected].