Friday Newsletter: A Request for Fox Sports and Telemundo on Your Qatar World Cup Broadcasts
Your U.S. viewers care about Qatar's record on migrant workers and its stance on LGBTQ+ rights and women's rights. So please don't put your head in the sand in November.
In February, right at the start of NBC’s opening ceremony broadcast of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, host Mike Tirico didn’t shy away from mentioning the elephant in the room.
“Now, the Olympic host city and nation are traditionally celebrated,” said Tirico, who was on the ground in China. “While that might be the case for some in the world, it is not for many of you watching back home. The United States government is not here, a diplomatic boycott announced this fall joined by Canada, Great Britain and Australia citing China’s human rights record and the U.S. government’s declaration that the Chinese Communist Party is guilty of committing genocide on the Uyghur Muslim population in Western Xinjiang region.”
Being the official U.S. broadcast rights-holder didn’t prevent NBC from doing the right thing and addressing China’s treatment of its Uyghur population. Nor did the fact that Tirico and other NBC employees were on the ground in China. NBC did real journalism on the issue, including an hour-long special on the genocide.
Fox Sports and Telemundo, the U.S. TV rights-holders for World Cup 2022 in Qatar, could and should do the same thing right from the top when they broadcast the world’s biggest sporting event starting November 20. Their viewers care about Qatar’s record on migrant workers in the country (who now number 2.1 million and make up 95 percent of Qatar’s workforce) and its stance on LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights.
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There’s still plenty of time for Fox and Telemundo to prepare journalistic packages on Qatar’s human rights record. But I have to admit, I’m not confident about that. In fact, I think there’s a much greater likelihood that they’ll put their heads in the sand entirely and instead broadcast sportswashing travel-themed packages—on dune-buggy rides, camel racing and falconry—that could have been produced by the Qatar Chamber of Commerce.
Why? Well, there are tens of millions of dollars in sponsorship money in play for Fox and Telemundo, especially from groups like Qatar Airways, which is owned by the Qatari state—which is to say, the country’s authoritarian royal family.
It’s possible that Fox and Telemundo could follow NBC’s China lead in Qatar, and I really hope it happens, but it seems unlikely when you hear the words of their World Cup production heads. (And those executives are the ones who make the decisions, not the talent in front of the camera, who aren’t responsible for calls made far above them at the highest levels of their companies.)
David Neal, the executive producer of Fox’s World Cup coverage, told The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch in 2018 that Fox wouldn’t address World Cup host Russia’s authoritarian president (Vladimir Putin) and his interference with the 2016 U.S. election, Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal or any similar topics.
“We don’t delude ourselves into thinking that any of us are Edward R. Murrow,” Neal said. “We know what we are there to do, and we are there to cover the World Cup. Anything that might happen beyond that, we will leave it to others to cover.” That sound you heard was the legendary ABC Olympics and Wide World of Sports broadcaster Jim McKay rolling over in his grave.
However, Fox did run a travel package during Russia 2018 on the vacation dacha of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet despot responsible for an estimated 20 million deaths of his own people, that began: “Say what you will about Joseph Stalin.”
When Telemundo Deportes president Ray Warren was asked last November in a conference call if his channel would address human rights issues in Qatar, he said: “We’re not a news organization, we’re a sports organization … We go wherever the World Cup is played.”
The idea that rights-holding sports broadcasters can’t address human rights violations is nonsense. NBC did it with the China Olympics just this year. So too has NRK, the Norwegian World Cup TV rights holder, which had two journalists detained in Qatar last year for doing journalism.
Last year, The Guardian’s Pete Pattisson cited government sources to report that more than 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar in the decade since the country was awarded the World Cup in 2010. (A total of 38 deaths have been directly tied to World Cup stadium construction, though nearly all of Qatar’s infrastructure growth has some connection to the World Cup.)
For its part, Amnesty International cited data from Qatar’s Planning and Statistics Authority that an even higher number—15,021 non-Qataris of all ages, occupations and causes—had died in Qatar in the past decade. (Qatari officials claim the migrant mortality rate is within the expected range given the workforce size.) Just as troubling, Amnesty says Qatar has failed to properly investigate up to 70 percent of its migrant worker deaths, noting that “in a well-resourced health system, it should be possible to identify the exact cause of death in all but 1 percent of cases.”
Meanwhile, Qatar represses the rights of LGBTQ+ people and has laws that forbid same-sex relations. As for women in Qatar, they must get permission from their male guardians to marry, obtain a government scholarship to pursue higher education, work in many government jobs and secure some reproductive health care. Qatari traditions (and some laws) declare men as household heads and guardians of women.
Just this week, I published a story in which I reported on the new laws for migrant workers that Qatar announced in 2019 and asked workers at 14 FIFA hotels in Doha if those laws were being followed on the ground. My story was hardly a one-sided account. Besides speaking to migrant workers and an Amnesty International representative, I presented the viewpoint of a global trade union head who helped negotiate Qatar’s new worker laws and now works with the Qatari government. I also published statements from FIFA and the Qatari government.
Fox and Telemundo could and should be doing these types of stories. They’re certainly not hesitating to dispatch a lot of people to Qatar for World Cup coverage. Neal told the Sports Business Journal recently that Fox Sports would be sending a staff of 150 people, including 30 on-air personalities, to the small nation on the Arabian peninsula.
I maintain the hope that at least a small fraction of those resources will be used to address the human rights elephant in the room that so many of the World Cup viewers watching on Fox and Telemundo will be thinking about.
(Full disclosure: I have done work in the past for Fox Sports and Telemundo and chose on my own to leave Fox in 2019; I currently do some non-exclusive work for CBS Sports.)
OPENING THE MAILBAG
The first Qatar piece is great, looking forward to the second part. I am curious, are you concerned that you may not be allowed access back into the country for the World Cup after these articles?
Thanks for reading the story. A lot went into it over many months. I certainly hope I wouldn’t have any issues getting back into Qatar to cover the World Cup in November. It would be terrible PR for Qatar and FIFA. Plus as I mention above, my story is hardly one-sided, and I give attention to the worker law changes that Qatar has put into place. The Qatari government should want independent journalists and human rights organizations to come into the country and verify on their own with workers that the new laws are being observed. That’s the only way Qatar will gain real credibility for change. While I didn’t want to be detained in Qatar when I went, I also realized that being a journalist with a U.S. passport carries significant weight in situations like that. Even if I had been detained, I don’t think it would have lasted very long. Lastly, I don’t think the U.S. is perfect, and I hope it receives scrutiny as a host country ahead of World Cup 2026.
You probably saw the viral Michael Sheen rousing “Let’s go Wales” speech. Who do you think could match it for the U.S.? Tom Cruise? Barack Obama? I think Samuel L. Jackson could kill at one.
I love the Samuel L. Jackson shout. He actually follows me on Twitter. Should I send him a DM asking him if he’d do one?
Do you have an opinion regarding whether the U.S. should adopt a singular uniform style (a la Argentina, for example)?
Lots of U.S. kit questions this week, and I suspect I know why! I’ve heard plenty of people say that Nike, which has a long-term contract with U.S. Soccer, should pick one basic design for the U.S. and stick with it. But there’s no way that would ever happen. There are a few countries like Argentina, Brazil and the Netherlands that have classic primary kit designs that never really change in a big way. But for any country like the U.S. that doesn’t have something like that, no company would willingly choose to limit their design and revenue possibilities by going for a long-term classic design. It just won’t happen.
With all the controversy/consternation surrounding the USMNT kits for WC22, I'm curious about your top 3 or 5 favorite U.S. kits.
Andrew J Montoya
Here are my favorites in order:
Not a question, but a request. Please spend the majority of the next pod dunking on these atrocious new kits. I guess I do have a question: Five worst U.S. kits of all time?
Haha, Chris and I might have to bring up the topic. Look, I don’t like the new U.S. kits either, but to be honest I don’t think kits are as big a deal as some folks were making it on Twitter this week. That said, fans are fans, and I get it. Here are my least-favorite from over the years (worst first):
The Premier League is generally considered the best and deepest men’s league top to bottom, with a tight race between several other countries for second place. Is the NWSL the best and deepest league for women, or is it the WSL, or another league?
I’d say the NWSL is deeper than any European domestic women’s league, including England’s WSL (which is still deeper than other European leagues like Spain and Germany). We’ll see if that changes over the years, and if England can continue its rise by upgrading teams at the bottom of that league.
Everyone’s having fun dunking on Todd Boehly’s suggestion of a Premier League All-Star game but tend to ignore the rationale for the game (to help fund the rest of the pyramid). Given that lower-level teams could certainly use more funding and such a game could generate a lot of revenue, is it really such a ridiculous idea?
By now, I have become acquainted first-hand with the extreme European (and especially English) hysteria over “ideas from Americans that could be useful in European soccer.” I don’t have any special attachment to All-Star Games and think they’re kind of silly, but Boehly’s idea wasn’t terrible, to be honest. Where he screwed up was using the phrase “take a lesson from American sports,” which does sound awfully condescending. The bigger issue is that the media pile-on for Boehly was more about the fact he was American than the idea he was suggesting. There are good ideas and bad ideas, but sometimes it seems like the “American” part is all that matters. Gary Neville’s tweet was the most ridiculous example of that genre:
Theoretically, there’s some number of goals that someone like Pefok or Haji could score in October to force their way on to the plane to Qatar, even if it’s a ludicrously high number, right? What do you think it would realistically take?
Ha! Probably a higher number than you think. Want to put it at 10 goals maybe?
What are some intriguing storylines that you think we should keep an eye out for regarding the World Cup?
There are plenty, but here are some that come to mind:
• The defending champion has gone out in the group stage in four of the last five World Cups. Could France do it again? Alternatively, if France wins, could Kylian Mbappé, with two titles by age 23, challenge Pelé’s career record of three World Cup triumphs?
• Not a single African team got out of the group stage at the last men’s World Cup. (Senegal became the first team ever to be eliminated on the fair-play points tie-breaker.) Can this Senegal team, the African champion, not only get to knockout rounds but go deeper than any previous African team and reach the semifinals?
• European teams have won every men’s World Cup going back to 2006. Five-time champion Brazil hasn’t won since 2002. Can those things change this year?
• Can Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo win their first World Cup in what may be their last chance?
What are your thoughts on wins vs. goal differential as a tie-breaker in MLS?
Juan Guillermo Ruiz
Don’t like the current system. Goal difference over the course of a season is a better indicator of overall achievement than number of overall wins.
Have a good weekend!