Qatar and the Performance of Caring

In protest of human rights abuses inflicted during preparation for the World Cup, the Danish national football team hid their logo in an all-black design for their jersey, described as “the color of mourning.” This decision was in remembrance of the migrant workers who died constructing the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The Danish sports brand behind the design is Hummel, and their move fits squarely in line with some of the other performative activism teams and companies involved in the World Cup have shown. In this context, performative activism is actions taken to increase or uphold social status rather than activism specifically committed to its respective cause. 

Just last month, a collection of European national teams that includes some of the powerhouses of the game, announced their captains will wear armbands that include a rainbow heart. This design choice is in support of anti-discrimination campaigns focusing on the LGBTQ+ community in Qatar. Additionally, ahead of a World Cup qualifier in March 2021, the Norwegian national team wore shirts that said “human rights – on and off the pitch” to show support for the migrant workers who died in the preparation for a tournament for which they would attempt to gain eligibility mere seconds later. These are all perfect examples of how performative activism appears in sports with teams brandishing symbols of progress and justice but doing little to achieve those goals. From the outset, it appears that the deaths the Danish team mourns for and the Norwegian team protests against do not outweigh the lure and prestige of participating in a World Cup.

The stories coming out of Qatar for the better part of a decade would suggest an abundance of reasons to engage in activism much deeper than what has been offered. Since the small nation was awarded hosting duties in 2010 for this year’s World Cup, 6,500 migrant workers, mainly coming from countries such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have died. Those who have survived have faced a slew of inhumane labor violations, the most visible of which is unpaid labor for hours of grueling work. Qatar’s injustices don’t end with its labor conditions, as the selection of Qatar as a host for the World Cup also brought attention to its criminalization of same-sex marriages.

What is most disappointing is that the footballing world has had over a decade to prepare a response to these conditions; the threat of human rights abuses was well documented ahead of the selection, but Qatar was able to successfully bribe FIFA into selecting them to host the tournament. Yet the best anyone could collectively come up with is a rainbow armband and a black jersey, a jersey that will likely be sold for profit around the world. There should be no irony lost that, as these jerseys and similar performative actions continue, no player nor team has recused themselves from the tournament; everything will proceed as it normally would, just with some slight changes in the attire.

Even for fans like myself, despite all my own criticisms, I am one of billions counting down the days awaiting the tournament’s kickoff. What teams, companies, and quite honestly, I as a fan, offer in response to such blatant injustices is nothing more than a performance. For the Norwegian and Danish national teams, to protest the treatment of migrant workers while actively participating in the event perpetuating such treatment is to solidify a hierarchy of needs where ultimately, the participation in the sporting event and the prestige it comes with is more important than the loss of life this event has incurred. The minuscule steps of armbands and jerseys instead of a full boycott prove that in practice, the issues surrounding the 2022 Qatar World Cup are simply seen as not important enough to stop the sport in its tracks. $42 million for the winner and eternal heroic status in one’s respective country appear to be too much for teams to give up, and for fans, the collective joy of the event is too significant to let go of as well. As members and consumers of the footballing world, we continue to treat this as legitimate and normal, proving that this can and will be done all over again.

Performative activism is nothing new, but the takeaway is that the 2022 Qatar World Cup presents us with yet another opportunity to reflect on our individual complicity in its injustice. One can argue that as individuals, our participation will not make much of a difference; whether one fan watches the World Cup or not will not change the fact that it is happening. While this is true, what I focus on here has less to do with igniting a movement than it does with our own relationship to morality. Namely, what purpose does it serve to care when it does not reflect any sort of stance, and are we okay with that position? 

The lessons we take from this winter, especially for those of us with privilege, like the US and other European countries who claim to be concerned, stretch far beyond the World Cup. Much closer to home, as members of the Tufts community, we will always have to contend with the fact that our institution puts out an image of prioritizing justice, while in practice continuing to act in ways that prove directly counter to those values. When students make calls for a more just institution, these are often dead on arrival, with an inefficient process at Tufts Office of Equal Opportunity and a blatant disregard for student referendums—be it campaigns to end the Deadly Exchange or Tufts’ investment in private prisons. No institution should put anyone in a position where the endeavors we find valuable involve us in immoral practices, but when our world is built on the back of injustice, we find no other way. We are in the perilous position of needing to sacrifice justice for joy, or joy for justice. 

As we move through life and find more of the things we love intertwined with the wrong side of morality, I wonder whether attempts at the performance of caring hold any value. At the end of the day, there are things we care about enough to make sacrifices, and there are others we find too important to give up. The question we must ask ourselves is, at what point do we give up and accept our fate as active players in the legitimization of growing institutional immorality? To engage in the performance of caring is merely a way to convince ourselves and others that we do indeed carry empathy, that despite our actions potentially enabling the situation’s immorality, be it a World Cup covered in the deaths of workers or the abhorrent treatment of various activist groups on this campus, things are not so black and white. Do we care enough to stop in our tracks and acknowledge the lack of normalcy in this reality? And globally, do we care about the deaths of migrant workers enough to give up a collective celebration? The answer appears to be a resigned no. We may not have power over a global event like the World Cup but our own choices and actions on this campus hold magnitude; there are several activist groups who engage in protest against issues salient to campus, from solidarity with workers to fighting against the university’s complicity in apartheid. There are always opportunities to join causes and amplify voices, meaningfully disrupting an unjust status quo.

Our institutions’ connections to injustices and their attempts to project the appearance of change are facets of our modern lives, and we must ask ourselves whether we are members of the audience or part of the show. Here, we have a choice to either continue to be complicit or to walk away. In truth, what should have happened in all these years before the World Cup is a boycott, among both players and fans. This boycott would treat the 2022 World Cup as it is: glaringly unjust. We should have refused to watch or involve ourselves in an extraordinary display of injustice and moved our attention to finding joy in other things. More of us should have taken those lessons to our own campus to question the legitimacy of the university’s decisions. But these are all shoulds. This winter, despite the attempts to walk away, I, along with others, will find myself accepting the fact that I too can be a part of the performance at times, that my actions have carried weight, and with it, consequences. I hope we do not forget this as choices continue to arrive.