Another sports league, another controversy . . .
Mesut Ozil, a midfielder with the U.K.-based Arsenal Football Club, has found himself on the receiving end of China’s wrath. Ozil, a German citizen of Turkish descent, posted a statement on his Instagram account supporting China’s Uighur minority. The Uighurs have made news this year for all the wrong reasons: a UN human rights panel and multiple independent reports have found that roughly 10 per cent of them have been detained in camps designed to strip them of their ethnic and religious identities. Responding to Ozil’s statement, China’s state-run broadcaster and two streaming services cancelled coverage of a much-anticipated match-up between Arsenal and its English Premier League rival, Manchester City.
Déjà vu all over again . . .
The blowback will feel familiar to the National Basketball Association (NBA). In October, the Houston Rockets’ general manager tweeted support for the protesters in Hong Kong. Despite an apology from the NBA commissioner, Beijing punished the league by dropping coverage of select games and pulling some NBA merchandise from stores, with the league estimating a revenue loss of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Like the NBA, the Premier League has a lot at stake. In 2016, it sold TV rights to China for a three-year deal valued at US$700 million. Arsenal issued a statement emphasizing that Ozil’s comments are his alone, and that the club does not take political positions on such issues.
Principle vs. profit . . .
Major sports leagues, like other global companies, are struggling to maintain a delicate balance between lucrative revenues from China’s massive and growing consumer market and not offending Beijing. But many fans outside China expect these companies to take a principled stand in support of the free-speech rights of players and other employees. Beijing is struggling with a balancing act of its own. Criticism of its Xinjiang policy for the Uighurs is surfacing in other forms of popular entertainment, including a video on TikTok combining a teenager’s beauty tutorial with sharply worded criticism of treatment of the ethnic minority, and a manga that went viral documenting the torture allegedly experienced by a Uighur woman.