HomeSportsQatari Investment Authority's investment in Monumental Sports is sportswashing at work

Qatari Investment Authority’s investment in Monumental Sports is sportswashing at work

The Qatari Investment Authority’s bid to buy a stake into the parent company that owns the Washington Capitals, Mystics and Wizards — while also buying a better narrative for its country — launches a new standard in American team sports. But the possible relationship between Qatar and Monumental Sports & Entertainment is not unique. It’s following a troubling pattern set in motion by LIV Golf and FIFA with the 2022 World Cup. It’s the same game plan, and it knows that over time, we will just stop caring.

We may think of sportswashing as a regime taking a pressure washer to its image, scrubbing down its reputation and wiping it clean so that, as the despicable bits circle the drain, the masses never knew they existed at all. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s more like a steady drip than a quick buff. Both the oil-rich sovereign powers pumping out billions and the Western professional sports leagues and franchises eager to siphon them off know this truth. They know it will require patience.

Sportswashing is a slow play, an erosion of ethics that takes its time to absorb the blows, weather the pushback and wait out the howls of disgust until they become quieter and quieter. When all that remains is a whimper and maybe even a shrug, then those countries have won. And they are winning now because we’re losing our outrage.

The first one through the door has to run the gantlet of bad press. Early stories about Saudi Arabia disrupting professional golf mention the state-sponsored assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, just as accounts of Qatar hosting the men’s World Cup included the deaths of migrant workers. Lipservice is given to the countries’ treatment of women and views on homosexuality.

Qatari fund seeks to buy minority stake in Wizards, Capitals and Mystics

But these nations and the sports that align with them are betting that next time — and every time after that and every other time after that — the indignation softens a little. That when ESPN reports on the Qatari connection to Monumental Sports & Entertainment, as it did Thursday evening, there will be no mention of the nation’s woeful human rights record, and there wasn’t at the top of the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter.” Or when news of the potential deal hits Twitter, the rage will be muted in the replies.

As these partnerships keep happening and the public fatigues — doesn’t everyone know what happens in Qatar by now? — the expectation is this eventually will be normal. We will accept the sports that we love, the entertainment we never will abandon, will serve as image rehabilitation for regimes in exchange for cash.

There will be no highlighting the hypocrisy of a company that has three powerful women as stakeholders is partnering with a country where single women who get pregnant can face prosecution for having sex out of wedlock. Nor will anyone point out that if Sheila C. Johnson, CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts and governor of the WNBA’s Mystics, lived in Qatar, she would earn 70 percent less than her male counterparts, and her testimony in court would be weighted less than that of a man because of Islamic law.

No one will ask how Monumental, a company that celebrates the LGBTQ+ community across its platforms and professional teams, could be so quick to take money from a country that criminalizes same-sex relationships and where Human Rights Watch, a group that advocates against injustices around the world, “documented six cases of severe and repeated beatings and five cases of sexual harassment [of LGBTQ+ people] in police custody between 2019 and 2022.”

Nor will anyone give Monumental, which has crowed about its stellar reputation as one of D.C.’s “top workplaces,” the side-eye over reports that 400 to 500 migrant workers in Qatar died while constructing those futuristic shrines to soccer in the lead-up to the World Cup. That number has been estimated to be far greater, but no one really knows because Qatar did not specifically track the causes and occupations of the non-nationals who died from 2010 to 2019.

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Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s pursuit of Qatari money signals the company is okay with all of this, confident that, over time, we still will be just fine with buying tickets to watch Alex Ovechkin or show up to Capital One Arena when LeBron James comes to town.

If the PGA Tour can merge with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and stomach an alliance with a kingdom that executed 196 people last year, the steepest number recorded by Amnesty International in the country over the past three decades, then don’t expect NFL teams to suddenly grow a conscience when the Saudis call. The PIF, reportedly a $600 billion fund, already has its claws in soccer, acquiring four of Saudi Arabia’s largest clubs as well as some of the game’s brightest stars (Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema). While the NFL does not permit sovereign wealth funds in its ownership ranks, it’s hard to imagine the league or a franchise forever saying no to the kind of deal the QIA is seeking with Monumental — “a passive, minority investment in the team,” according to an NBA spokesperson. Passive and minority but reportedly somewhere in the range of $200 million.

More of these unions are coming, and the next time the Saudis lure a superstar to play soccer, the mention of Khashoggi’s name will bump down another paragraph. The next Qatari entry into mainstream sports, the dead migrant workers will be remembered even further down the story. Eventually, there will be no reference to human rights at all.

This is the beginning. It’s not a power wash, because a deep cleansing of sins takes time. Instead, sportswashing will work a decade from now, a generation later. The teams and leagues are willing to live with some of the accompanying dirt for now. The money is worth it.

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