Analysis | Sports diplomacy — the United States must do better
On February 17, 2022, I received a call that Russian authorities detained WNBA star player Brittney Griner at a Moscow airport, days before Russia would invade Ukraine. Working closely for ten months behind the scenes on Griner’s release, I saw first-hand how Russia used her as a pawn, clearly recognizing the political advantage of having a globally recognized sports star in their control. Yet throughout the daunting process and through her release, Griner handled unthinkable challenges with courage and humility, reminding us that the best of America remains an inspiration to the world. The story of BG’s imprisonment is just the latest in a series of high-profile examples in which sports has moved beyond the field of play and into the world of geopolitics, and the United States must do more to adjust accordingly.
In the past two decades, countries such as China, Russia, and Qatar have used cultural and sports diplomacy to “sports wash” their blemished reputations and overshadow larger social issues. Controversies around Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund launching LIV Golf have featured prominently in the news. Regarding the former, the Economist reported in December that estimates of carbon emissions for the most recent World Cup are higher than for any recent global sporting event, despite promises of being carbon-neutral. More alarmingly, reports of deaths of migrant workers in preparing Qatar for the event range from several hundred as announced by the host nation to as high as 6,500 as reported by human rights groups.
As the eyes of the world turn to the sporting calendar that lies ahead for the United States in the coming decade, we as a nation have an opportunity to lead by example and demonstrate to the world the priority we as a country place on responsible, sustainable global sporting events while reaffirming the growing role that sports diplomacy has to build bridges within the global community. In the next decade, the United States will host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, the 2028 Olympics and Paralympics, as well as the Men’s T20 Cricket World Cup (2024) and the Men’s and Women’s Rugby World Cup (2031 and 2033). These events are mammoth undertakings; for example, the 2026 FIFA World Cup will require extensive coordination with fellow hosts sites in Canada and Mexico. In addition, for the first time, the tournament will also feature a 48-team field, requiring U.S. government agencies to coordinate not only among themselves but also with their foreign counterparts. The debacle around visas to the United States for the World Athletics Championships in Oregon this past summer, in which hundreds of athletes and coaches were not allowed to travel due to appointment delays, underscores how far we have to go.
Work must commence immediately within the U.S. government to ensure the success of these events. The White House can begin by creating an inter-agency working group that uses the expertise of an array of stakeholders to ensure these coming events are successful, inclusive, and responsible. This group should identify challenges and opportunities in critical policy areas, including environmental sustainability, human rights, immigration, gender equality, and national security.
The U.S. government should further consider the appointment of a visionary leader, with the mandate to streamline whole-of-government processes around these events. They could help reset the global conversation around what sports diplomacy and these events mean to us as a society, and show how sports can be a force for good and opportunity for all. It is also worth considering the formation of an overarching sports diplomacy strategy for the United States, as recommended by a USC report on sports diplomacy last year, similar to other ally nations, including Australia, France, and Japan.
Prior to working at the NBA, I served in the State Department’s Division of Sports Diplomacy, an office the LA Times recently called the “best kept secret” in the State Department. For nearly twenty years, the office has facilitated people-to-people exchanges through sports. While of vital importance in improving our engagement with foreign audiences, the office lacks the larger mandate of coordinating policy around sports.
By taking a proactive approach, the U.S. government can streamline planning processes for these events. More importantly, it can focus on the larger objective of reframing how sports diplomacy can play a more active role in U.S. engagement abroad. As the United States navigates the rise of other powers around the world, sports remains a salient tool in the nation’s toolkit to engage foreign audiences, using the global language of sports to export U.S. values and ideals.
Since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, international sporting competitions have broken down barriers and brought people of different cultures, languages, and ethnic and religious backgrounds together. In polarizing times such as these, sports diplomacy has the power once more to bridge divides, enhance mutual understanding, and bring the world closer together. For the United States to succeed at this critical juncture, we need government and private stakeholders to come together as quickly as possible to employ innovative leadership, recognize the failures of recent global sporting events, and determine how we as America can and must do better.
Travis Murphy is the founder and CEO of Jetr Global Partners, a sports immigration consultancy that provides comprehensive solutions and expedited services in the increasingly complex world of global immigration. Previously, Travis served as the Senior Director of International Government Affairs for the National Basketball Association (NBA), managing all immigration and visa matters for the league. He also served as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service, working at embassies in Ecuador, Suriname and Cote d’Ivoire, as well as in the Sports Diplomacy Division of the Department of State. He began his career as a radio journalist in his home state of Kansas before moving to Washington, D.C. to become the communications director and later chief of staff and campaign manager for now-U.S. Senator Jerry Moran. Travis has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Kansas State University and a master’s degree in public administration from Arizona State University.
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