The Crackdown on Bahrain's Jocks for Justice

Al’a Hubail is a legend in the world of Bahraini soccer. In 2004, along with his brother Mohammed, he led the national team on a rollicking VCU-esque run into the Asian Cup semi-finals. Hubail then became the first Bahraini player to win the prestigious Golden Boot Award after scoring five goals against the continent's best teams.

Now the winner of the Golden Boot has gotten the boot, expelled from the national squad and arrested after news cameras caught him at an “anti- government” protest aimed at Bahrain’s royal family. His soccer-playing brother, Mohammed, who stood alongside him at a peaceful protest across from Bahrain's shoot-first army and the imported armed forces of Saudi Arabia, was also sacked from the team and put into custody. Both brothers, along with two other players, were cuffed and frog-marched off the practice field in front of shocked teammates.

According to the Times of London, Bahrain's state-news program had focused on the Hubail brothers at the demonstration to “shame the sports stars” for taking part in the protest and referred to them and all the demonstrators as “stray hyenas.” The state-news report didn’t mention that Al’a Hubail is a trained paramedic and EMT who was also acting as a volunteer nurse at the protest. Considering the dozens killed and hundreds injured by Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s armed forces since the protests began, he should be lauded as a true international hero. Instead he is behind bars.

The Hubail brothers were just the most prominent athletes affected in what has become an ugly crackdown on the country’s Jocks for Justice. Bahrain, a country run by a royal family so decayed with gluttony, excess, and corruption, they could be honorary Trumps, has announced that 200 athletes have been indefinitely suspended on charges of “supporting the popular revolution in the country.” Among them are nationally known basketball, volleyball, and handball players. The Associated Press quoted a government official, speaking under the cloak of anonymity, saying that these athletes have been branded “against the government” for having supported “anti-government” protests. No other specifics were given. All 200 have also been banned from any international play. All 200, like the overwhelming majority of demonstrators, are part of the country’s oppressed Shi’a Muslim majority.

Shamefully, yet completely unsurprisingly, the Bahrain Football Association backed the move, saying, “The suspension falls under misconduct, and the breaching of the rules and regulations of sporting clubs…. not to engage in political affairs.”

Also shamefully, yet completely unsurprisingly, President Barack Obama and the US government have said nothing. As Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a consultant to Human Rights Watch, wrote, “President Obama... loses his voice when it comes to Bahrain.”   This isn't just oversight or happenstance. Bahrain happily houses the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and has pledged to do so for another 50 years. It appears that this favor has given them the right to spill the blood of peaceful protesters with impunity. There is no “no-fly zone” over Bahrain, and no emergency UN Security Council meeting. There are no breathless comparisons by news columnists of the Bahraini royal family with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Darth Vader, or Sauron. Instead, with a lockstep consistency that would impress the state media systems of the old Eastern Bloc, US politicians of both parties and US media have chosen to remain silent.

This isn’t the first revolt in Bahrain’s history but it is by far the most serious.  Once the wave started across the region, Bahrain was an obvious place where the sentiment of rebellion against autocracy would find fertile ground. I spoke to Chris Toensing, the editor of the Middle East Report, and he said, “Because it is located atop the hydrocarbon jackpot of the world in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain has the image of a wealthy nation. In fact a large part of the native population is poor.  That poverty plus the sectarianism chauvinism and tyranny of the royal family have made the country restive for decades. The 2011 revolt is but the largest and most brutally repressed of a series of popular struggles for justice.”

But just because the political class and the front page of your paper have surrendered their morality and said nothing, doesn’t mean the sports page should follow suit. Every soccer writer with a working pulse should be calling for the release of the Hubail brothers. Every sports union should release statements saying that they stand with their 200 brethren and want them re-instituted immediately and without delay. Every player who believes in the concept of fair play should call upon the Bahraini royal family to cease and desist. The Royals want to practice their repression in shadows.] We can offer light. Sports teams are often referred to as families. Well, when members of our family are being abused, you say something. Bahrain’s royal butchers are banking on our silence. But when silence equals death, it’s no longer an option.


14 Reader Comments | Add a comment

High expectations?

Great column Dave but I think u hold the "sports fan" and athletics alike in too high regard to expect anyone to go out on a limb in support, especially anyone with a big enough voice to make any difference. Sport is the entertainment for the elites and the modern sportsman has become their pitchman. Sorry to be so pessimistic but its hard to think anything otherwise. In saying that I really do hope I am wrong.


I'm sure Dave can defend his tactics better than I, but I'll give it a go. Sport is the universal language. What do you talk about when you're in the company of total strangers--say, on a train, or in a bar? Generally, folks talk about the weather or sports. Local politics are just that: local. Regional or cultural things are often specific to that region or culture. But I can travel across the country and have basically the same discussion about the NBA playoffs in Philly as I might in Oregon. This gives the contradictions that Dave so amazingly raises in the sporting world the ability to transcend boundaries of localities, regions, cultures, or even languages. Sports may be the products of the elites--as in the owners, advertisers, etc. But the average sports fan is absolutely working class.

But don't take my word for it. Pick up one of Dave's books and see how sports have played a pivotal role in changing the political landscape of America. It's happened many times before and it can happen again.


I certainly hope so just highly doubt it.

facts missed

Dear Dave, while it. Is true that the Hubail brothers were held in high regard at one point, you perhaps do not know that these same brothers were given almost a total of $100,000 each by the King as a personal reward for lifting the country's name high. He also built them both luxury villas AND they both work in the Bahrain Defense Force (the army). The last point is perhaps the main point overlooked here because by Law, no member of the army is allowed to partake in ANY protests (whatever it is for) the Hubail brothers knew this of course as members of the army but they chose to go aid the failed revolution attempt. What is being done now by the government is holding them accountable for their actions, not a random witchunt.

back at the HK

I just wonder what would have happened to these "ungrateful" brother/soccer stars, way back when, if they had said "no thanks" to the cash and the villas? And I wonder how free they were NOT to join the army? Now I wonder how they are being treated in prison? But I don't wonder, HK, about any shred of morality that might be in your possession.

reply to Louis

Perhaps your misunderstanding of the Bahraini culture and society is behind your comment but just to enlighten you, your understanding of joining the army is ill-informed, we do not have a required military service in our country like others do, on the contrary, joining the army over here is considered an honor and a privilige, the Hubail brothers requested to join the army - they are free to choose any work they want just like any bahraini. It is harder to get into military service than working at a bank or company

Who cares TheHK? The government actions are still atrocious

TheHK, don't use "Bahraini culture and society" card.

Why is peacefully speaking against the government an act that can put someone in prison anyway?

In the U.S., soldiers can (and do) speak out against the existing government, in their own time. We have the First Amendment and free speech. You should try it sometimes!

Your comments illustrate why freedom and democracy are more badly needed than ever. If your society views brutal censorship as just part of "Bahraini culture" then your society is backwards.

to Tornado & the HK

Both your comments made me reflect on 2 American soldiers: Pat Tillman, the American NFLer who did join out of patriotism, only to be killed by friendly fire at the AF-Pak border (Dave Z has written provocatively on his character); and Bradley Manning, a hero who is nonetheless being tortured, and whom 300 legal experts just published a letter of condemnation of Obama for violating his rights (in the NY Review of Books).

It is worth reading this Letter in full (see - as it is in a way unprecedented, and reflects the state of so-called "democracy" in this country, much less Bahrain, who along with Saudi Arabia have our blessing, let us not forget.

So to "the HK" and Tornado: if you want to know what "honor and privilege" means to those who call the shots in this country, if you want to get inside their heads, then look no further than what happened to Tillman under Bush, and now Manning under Obama.

Tornado and Louis

You say I use the "bahraini culture and society" card- it is not a play, my point was that it is easy to assume things when living far away, but I lived through this failed revolution attempt and trust me, it was nothing peaceful. I am an athlete myself and have publshed my story up until the anarchists took over our capital city and held it under siege. The main problem is that the media chooses what to cover. Please Tornado, do not overlook the fact that these protesters repeatedly ran over and killed policemen, burned our streets with molotov cocktails, beat up and tortured several Pakistani expatriates. We were about to lose our country to terrorists who dressed their cause up under "peaceful" signs but as a Bahraini with a first hand account, peaceful was just a show for the international media.

Back to this article- At the end of the day, the point is that public figures should be extremely careful what causes and movements they support even if only in passing. Especially sports figures who have fans, are associated with clubs and the national team. Whatever they choose to associate themselves with will reflect on everything they have. I believe Sports and politics should not mix.

Whether someone is a sports athelete or not, breaking the law requires accountability. It's that simple in my opinion.

If you woud like to read my story please read it on

Bad analogies fit for a college sophomore sociology class

Louis -- grow up.

You can get away with those lazy analogies in a college sophomore sociology class, or sitting around bs'ing at the local "radical" coffee shop, but they quickly fall apart.

Whatever you think of Pat Tillman's case, there's absolutely no evidence he was killed because of anything he said. The fact that that a nationally-distributed movie could be made about his case and his beliefs shows that free speech lives in the U.S.

As for Bradley Manning, he allegedly misused his position, and distributed classified information to the world. He could have spoke out against the war in Afghanistan. Hell, many soldiers already have.


Similar arguments like yours have been made before by others justifying censorship. They have been rejected by our Supreme Court.

Did either of the Hubail brothers "killed policemen, burned our streets with molotov cocktails, beat up and tortured several Pakistani expatriates"? If not, then they cannot be punished for the acts of others.

They should not be held guilty by association and they should not be imprisoned for their peaceful speech. Period.

Tornado: when it comes to democracy you haven't a clue

Tornado, I was sincerely amused by your counsel to "grow up" and reject my sophomoric sociology frame of reference.Full disclosure that I hope you get a kick out of: I did take sociology as a sophomore in college...but I have a feeling you took the same class!?! I did move on from there, but it was a good learning experience, even from negative example. As for your tone of self-righteousness, you exhibit a know-it-all, condescending scholastic streak with which I am quite familiar, as some of my sociology and philosophy profs (and a few up-and -coming wannabes in my class) were similarly inclined.
To speak directly to the question at hand, you lecture The HK on how "we [the USA] have the First Amendment and free speech. You should try it sometimes!" Yet you have no comment about the 300 legal experts speaking on Bradley Manning's behalf and his mistreatment at the hands of Obama & Co. You also set up a straw man argument about Pat Tillman, when my intended point was NOTHING to do with a conspiracy but rather that no matter the sincere beliefs of those who choose to serve, their commanders are not spreading freedom and democracy but are dedicated to an endless war for Empire, including in Bahrain. I can accept that the way I posed that analogy with Tillman was indeed confusing, so I accept your criticism in that regard. But how about you? Can you get your mind around this statement on "democracy" ?
"In a world marked by profound class divisions and social inequality, to talk about "democracy"—without talking about the class nature of that democracy and which class it serves—is meaningless, and worse. So long as society is divided into classes, there can be no "democracy for all": one class or another will rule, and it will uphold and promote that kind of democracy which serves its interests and goals. The question is: which class will rule and whether its rule, and its system of democracy, will serve the continuation, or the eventual abolition, of class divisions and the corresponding relations of exploitation, oppression and inequality."
— Bob Avakian



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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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