Fool's Gold - Athletes, Sports Associations, and Citizen Speech

The Iranian government has been busy in its efforts to smother free expression.  The regime has raided school meetings, newsrooms, political offices, blocked social networks, and slowed the Internet to a crawl. Yesterday, the regime added the soccer pitch to the list of areas that have been soiled in defense of the double plus good democratic "election" results.  This should remind us all of the power of athlete speech and the heavy-handed means governments and sports associations use to ensure silence.

Four Iranian soccer players have been permanently “retired” due to their display of solidarity with those protesting the results of the recent Iranian election. The players, Ali Karimi, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Hosein Ka’abi, and Vahid Hashemian, wore green (a symbol used by opposition leader Mir Moussavi) wristbands during their match against South Korea.  The regime justified the ban due to the players’ “government interference.”

This is not the first time that the regime has been troubled by events connected to the beautiful game.  On March 26, 2005, following the Iranian national team’s victory over Japan, there were widespread protests against the regime in Esfahan, Shiraz, Tehran, and Kermanshah. At least six demonstrators were killed when militiamen put down the protests. 

The loss of four players will weaken Iran's national team, but this is unimportant in the short term since Iran’s bid to qualify for the World Cup in 2010 is now over. But hopefully the regime’s latest intrusion in the sports scene will have other repercussions. If and when ESPN picks up the story, over a million viewers will be reminded of the ongoing injustices in Iran. It might also spur FIFA to take strong actions against Iran's ability to participate in future matches.

FIFA should not allow Iran’s elimination from the World Cup Qualifying Round to take the place of a proper punishment. Instead, the sport's association should send a strong message that free speech is valuable on the pitch and suspend Iran from international competition. Indeed, the association did just that, albeit briefly, after the government sacked Mohammed Dadkan, the Iranian football president, for the country’s poor performance at the 2006 World Cup.  FIFA again should exercise its right to sanction Iran for excessive government interference. While this may seem insignificant, the anger of passionate sports fans would likely be directed towards the government, further depressing support for the regime. However, it is unclear if FIFA will get involved at all (the North Korean team qualified in the very match which dashed Iran's World Cup hopes.)  

This issue is important for everyone, not just Iranians. The arena provides a platform for important social movements. In the United States, sports protests and the political speech of athletes played a vital role in the civil rights movement. The IOC and boxing commissions can never escape their sordid roles in continuing both the censorship of athletes and the oppression those sports-men and women were resisting. It's hard to argue that the IOC has learned its lesson regarding sports and human rights, but at least the Sydney Olympics brought some attention to aboriginal issues. Each transnational sporting association must realize it is not above the political fray. The sheer power and exposure of sports ensure that athletics will remain an important force in the struggle for human rights and justice.

(Andrew Moshirnia is a rising second-year law student at Harvard Law School and a CMLP legal intern. He remembers cheering during the Iran-U.S. World Cup match in 1998.)


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