To mark Human Rights Day on the tenth of December, we will spend this month exploring business and human rights. The Centre for Business, Organisations and Society will also host the webinar "Business and Human Rights: A scholarly contribution to the ‘decade of action’" where academics will share lessons from their research, revealing how businesses can implement effective human rights practices and policies.
In this piece Paul Bedford reflects on the Premier League’s efforts to tackle racial and LGBT+ discrimination, to understand its approach to political responsibility. Using these reflections, he explores why it has yet to take responsibility for the human rights abuse to which it's linked.
In October Mike Ashley, the retail mogul owner of Newcastle United sold his 80 percent stake in the club to a consortium funded by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund (PIF). Although the deal is comparatively small in the world of corporate takeovers, it has sent shockwaves through the world’s most popular sport, due to Saudi Arabia’s notoriously poor human rights record. The deal highlighted the Premier League’s reluctance to engage with human rights issues - its leadership has so far rejected accusations that Newcastle United may be linked to human rights abuses, stating the Saudi regime will have no direct control of the football club.
A contradictory approach to political responsibility
However, evidence suggests that the Saudi Regime does benefit politically from their investments in sport, such as their ownership of Newcastle United. If this is the case, then the Premier League has a responsibility to act.
Yet, their response so far has drawn attention to the contradictory nature of the Premier League’s approach to political responsibility, (in which an organisation acknowledges the political dimensions its actions and takes responsibility for them). For example, despite its refusal to recognise the political ramifications of the Saudi stake in Newcastle United, the Premier League did recently acknowledge its political role in tackling racial discrimination and discrimination against the LGBT community. This move comes after years of passivity on their part to these major social issues.
Tackling racism in football
The Premier League is a membership organization, which is owned by its 20 clubs, who have an equal vote on league policy. Traditionally, the member clubs have chosen to handle political issues on an institutional basis, which means that they followed the guidance and frameworks established by the Premier League’s central administration. The League now takes a strong stance on racism - it established a centralised ‘No Room for Racism’ strategy, which includes set actions for member clubs to improve racial inclusivity in the game and to support education that can prevent discrimination. They also sanction protest actions, such as players ‘taking the knee’ to support anti-racism, and wearing rainbow laces to bring attention to LGBT discrimination in the game.
The member clubs are very reluctant to take political actions outside of these established strategies, despite there being no rules preventing them from doing so. This is because the clubs claim to be politically neutral, and taking unilateral actions on political issues could result in them being drawn into political processes that could alienate players, investors and sponsors. Therefore, without a centralised strategy, there is no process – or seemingly appetite - for Premier League clubs to deal with the issue of human rights abuses.
Why are the Premier League unable to deal with human rights issues?
This became evident in 2019, when Arsenal and the Premier League distanced themselves from comments made by Arsenal player Mezut Ozil, who spoke out about the human rights abuses by China against their Uyghur population. At this time Arsenal and the Premier League had commercial activities in China, and their position stood in contrast to that of other non-political entities with connections to China, such as fashion brand H&M, who took action in response to the alleged treatment of the Uyghurs.
The reluctance of the Premier League to establish a human rights strategy, reflects how its economic stakeholders have shaped its political responsibility. Since its inception in 1992 the League has predominantly taken an economic approach to its stakeholder relationships; prioritising the players, (its most important asset), its TV broadcasting partners, and its sponsors. Their economic approach to stakeholder relationships should explain the reluctance to engage with political issues, as taking a stance on divisive issues could be damaging to their TV and sponsorship partners.
However, this doesn’t entirely hold true with all issues - the Premier League’s involvement with the ‘taking the knee’ protest proved divisive and the rainbow laces initiative has also drawn criticism. Nonetheless, the Premier League’s stakeholder directed approach to addressing political issues, has meant that it’s taken a reactive approach to its political responsibilities. For example, it was only in 2017 that the Premier League finally incorporated and centralised anti LGBT discrimination initiatives, despite decades of pressure. This delay of action shows that they’re unwilling to take responsibility for political issues, until a consensus is reached amongst their economic stakeholder groups that action is needed. This suggests that Premier League and its member clubs are very unlikely to take a proactive and leading role on human rights, until these issues are so entrenched in the public consciousness that their broadcast partners, sponsors, players and the fans feel like they must stand up against it.
It’s unlikely that a consensus will be reached without sustained pressure from interest groups on the league and its stakeholders. In the case of racism, the issue affected two of the League’s priority stakeholders, the players and match-going fans. Fans and players worked alongside interest groups, such as Kick It Out, and Stonewall to bring attention to their experiences of discrimination, changing the perceptions of Premier League fans, who now predominantly support actions to tackle racial and LGBT discrimination. However, without this pressure from players and fans, it seems unlikely that interest groups can create the desire for change amongst the Premier League's key stakeholders. This means that, despite the likely wave of pressure from human rights groups such as Amnesty about the Newcastle takeover, a consensus is unlikely to be reached. For now then, it looks like the League will continue to shirk its responsibilities and continue to avoid establishing rules and processes to address human rights abuses.
One bright spot, however, is the power that fans can exert when they come together – though broadcasters and sponsors are also key stakeholder, to a large extent they take their cues from public opinion. Recently, we have seen the Premier league make progress towards a strategy on gambling addiction, including banning gambling sponsors, after pressure from fan groups. Let us hope that the in the next few years, with renewed vigour to stand up against human rights abuses from the general public but especially football fans, the Premier League will develop a strategy on human rights.