The Ethics Of… The World Cup

The World Cup is here! A massive, festive, truly international event, where people of every nation come together to celebrate the greatest players of the most popular sport in the world.

Organised by FIFA, which argues football is “much more than just a game” that enshrines “unifying, educational, cultural and humanitarian values, particularly through youth”, the World Cup offers a truly unparalleled chance to build international community.


Unless of course, you happen to move in certain social justice, political-minded circles, in which case you might be forgiven for thinking the apocalypse is having a trial run for the next month.

Widespread corruption, forced evictions, massive protests over the misuse of public funds, and government efforts to have those protests made ‘acts of terrorism’. All in all it makes Brazil sound like it’s gearing up for a bloody revolution/tyrannical crack-down rather than a fun sporting match – especially one that’s meant to embody “unifying, educational, cultural and humanitarian values”.

Forced evictions Brazil

Pros and Cons

There has been considerable debate about whether the Cup will be an overall positive or negative thing for Brazil. Supporters argue that it will be a massive boost for the Brazilian people’s national pride, as well as attracting international investment, and increasing the tourism that is so valuable for the country.

Others argue that the money being spent by the government to build huge new ‘mega-stadia’ is being directly stolen from the Brazilian people, who desperately need improved hospitals, roads, and water supply. In a country with over 31 million people in poverty and the vast majority of wealth in the hands of a very small group of people (as of 2009 Brazil was 4th worst in the world for economic inequality) spending public money on international sporting events seems questionable at best.

At worst, it seems like a corrupt government spending their people’s money on an event designed to stoke their egos and make them even more money – very little of the tourist dollar or international investment is going to be directed to the slums, after all (especially when the Brazilian government has just bulldozed them).


The bigger question

But all of this misses a bigger question: why should we give a crap?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but we’re just here to watch some god damn football, yeah?

Yes yes, the political situation in Brazil is not exactly ideal and choosing to host the Cup while you have 15% of your population struggling to survive seems ethically questionable to say the least, but what does that have to do with us?

It’s not like we’re causing the problem – the blame for that lays squarely with the Brazilian government. They have definitely been far from ethical in their approach to the event, but the World Cup did not create that brutality; it’s is just a symptom of far larger, deep-seated problems with the Brazilian political system. Problems which even an international event like the Cup has zero chance of fixing.

Sure FIFA may go on about lofty ideals like ‘unity’ and ‘humanitarian values’ but honestly, does anyone really take that sort of guff seriously? Just as the Olympics likes to crap on about “Using Sport to create a better world” and then awards the Games to freakin’ China, and Nestle likes to claims it’s a staunch “advocate for effective water policies and stewardship” while attempting to privatize the drinking water in developing countries, FIFA’s much touted ‘values’ are just good old fashioned PR. Expecting them (and any other profit-driven organisation for that matter) to take a stand on social issues when there’s money to be made, is just naivety.

And sure, there may well be a lot of corruption when it comes to FIFA selecting the next host for the Cup, but so what? If everyone knows the process is corrupt then no one is disadvantaged by it – paying off the right people is just another part of a successful bid.

Evil committed by a foreign government have nothing to do with those of us that just want to watch some football. Asking fans (and especially the players who have worked their entire lives to get to this event) to boycott an event like this isn’t just cruel, it’s unfair! It is a fundamental tenant of ethics that the buck stops with the perpetrator.


You wish.


Dishing out the blame

Imagine that you’re standing at the edge of a pool, watching a small child drowning. You can save the kid easily at zero risk to yourself. But you don’t. You just stand there and watch the kid die.

While most would agree this isn’t quite as bad as murder (it bloody well is and I can prove it) there will be no debate that by choosing not to help the kid, you became responsible for letting it die. Ethically, a dick move on fairly epic proportions.

But what if you were watching that kid drown with 9 other people? What if all those people were equally capable of saving the kid but also chose not to? Who’s responsible now?

Conventional wisdom tends to try to divide up responsibility for an incident – each of the spectators share the responsibility, so are each 10% responsible for the kid’s death – but think about this approach for half a second and it starts to look ridiculous. If every one of those spectators was fully capable of saving the child on their own, and would be judged 100% responsible for the death if they were alone, then what does it matter that there are 9 other people standing there as well?

The same goes the other way around: you work on a project that turns out to be hugely successful – are you entitled to take 100% of the responsibility for this success?

Sure you did all the work and it couldn’t have happened without you, but what about everyone else that contributed to the project succeeding? Your boss provided supervision and advice, the lawyers provided legal protection, the interns did all your photocopying, and the owners provided the funding. Remove any one of these components and the project would have been 100% unsuccessful – so how can you divide up responsibility for its success out of 100%?

The point I’m slowly getting to here is that Responsibility is Indivisible; attempting to determine the influence of one player’s relative to that of others is impossible and fruitless. Each player’s responsibility has to be calculated individually, regardless of what anyone else did or could have done.

The only relevant measure in determining your responsibility for anything is your capacity to intervene in the situation.

There are plenty of good reasons not to try to rescue a drowning child; if you can’t swim for example, you’re just going to make the problem worse. But if you can swim and all it’s going to cost you to save that drowning child is a wet pair of pants, then it make zero difference what anyone else is doing – you get your arse into the pool.


Making life difficult

So where does that leave us with the World Cup? In a right mess, that’s where.

On the one hand the principle of Indivisible Responsibility implies that all the bad stuff going on in Brazil right now is each our individual responsibility to resolve. And on the other hand, the very idea that we should take personal responsibility for the socio-economic policy of a foreign nation is insane.

What the hell can any one of us hope to do about political issues in our own countries, let alone a foreign one? Unless you’re a billionaire or a political leader then good luck throwing your weight around there son – it ain’t going to make a lot of difference.

This is where our capacity to intervene in a situation becomes relevant. Are we going to be able, as individuals or even large groups, to fix the underlying governance problems plaguing Brazil or other nations? Maybe. Not much though.

But can we contribute to this by sending a clear message to the Brazilian government, and those who would happily ignore their own capacity to prevent the suffering happening in preparation for the Cup (looking at you FIFA)?

Damn right we can. And so, damn right you must.

At the end of the day there’s only so much one person can care about – trust me, no one knows this better than I do. And demanding football fans boycott the premier event of their favourite sport might seem unfair to say the least.

But when that act is one of the few real ways we can contribute to improving the quality of life for millions neglected and abused by the Brazilian government, then you have to ask yourself a question; is a game worth it?

One thought on “The Ethics Of… The World Cup

  1. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Telling People What To Do | The Ethics Of

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