There Is No Space in the Sports World to Call for a Free Palestine

Column Image

Then-PSV’s and currently Bundesliga’s Mainz player Anwar El Ghazi, left, scores his side’s fifth goal during the Europa League group A soccer match between PSV and Zurich at the Philips stadium in Eindhoven, Netherlands, on October 13, 2022.  (Peter Dejong, File / AP Photo)

The decision of professional athletes to stay silent is understandable, but it’s sad to see caring people muzzle themselves to protect their livelihoods.

The sports world right now is not exactly a bastion of free speech. I have communicated with multiple players who are disgusted by Israel’s bombardment of Gaza as well as the US government’s funding of this war. But they are afraid to say anything. Their decision to stay silent is understandable. They believe that if they say anything deemed anti-Israel, they will be told to recant, find themselves suspended, or end up out of work. For pro athletes, whose employment is never guaranteed and where the average career ends before you hit 30, the quiet is unsurprising, but it’s also painful to see caring people muzzle themselves out of concerns for their livelihood.

The logic of silence was reinforced last week when the Bundesliga team Mainz fired 28-year-old Dutch soccer player Anwar El Ghazi for social media posts expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people and calling for a cease-fire. He used the phrase “from the river to the sea” in his post, a decades-old slogan calling for freedom across the Palestinian homeland. It’s also a phrase that opens you to criminal prosecution in Germany, because of the Israeli government’s insistence that the words are really calling for the eradication of the Jewish people themselves. It should go without saying, but this is simply not true, despite the best efforts of Benjamin Netanyahu and his minions to make it so. The media’s coverage of the slogan, in failing to state this outright, has been executors of this slanderous disinformation, aimed at branding protesters who have long used this well-worn phrase, look violently anti-Semitic. (When Netanyahu made his own Israeli “river to the sea” speech at the United Nations in September, no one threatened criminal prosecution.)

After El Ghazi posted those fateful six words, the team suspended him, then Mainz let him back after it announced that he had apologized and expressed contrition. But in another post, El Ghazi replied, “My position remains the same as it was when this started,” adding:

“I am against war and violence. I am against the killing of all innocent civilians. I am against all forms of discrimination. I am against Islamophobia. I am against anti-Semitism. I am against genocide. I am against apartheid. I am against occupation. I am against oppression.”

For this—a statement reaffirming his opposition to anti-Semitism and genocide—El Ghazi was terminated. Following his release, El Ghazi, posted the quote, “Stand for what is right, even if it means standing alone.” Then wrote, “The loss of my livelihood is nothing when compared to the hell being unleashed on the innocent and vulnerable in Gaza.”

Contrast this story with that of the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers co-owner, a tanning bed–addicted Hollywood producer named Gary Gilbert. Now, Gilbert has earned the attention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for taking to social media to call for violence against protesters demanding a cease-fire and a free Palestine. He warned college students that “we’re armed and ready for you punks,” responded to calls for a cease-fire by posting “time to buy a gun,” and said that young people trying to stop the bombardment “just need a good punch in the face.”

Abed Ayoub, the national executive director of the ADC, called for Gilbert to be kicked out of the NBA, saying,

“Discrimination and racism in all of their forms have no place in sports. As a global game, the NBA has a responsibility to denounce hate speech and ensure that anyone affiliated with the association adheres to its commitment to social justice. After the Donald Sterling controversy, it is disheartening to see that some of those in ownership positions still hold bigoted and hat[e]ful views.”

Yet we are hearing silence from the NBA, which has numerous formal partnerships with Israel and Israeli pro teams.

Yes, it is a somewhat obvious point that players have a far narrower space to speak their mind than a billionaire film producer who co-owns a franchise. This is even true for someone like Gilbert, who already showcased his penchant for cruelty by inflicting Garden State and La La Land on the populace.

It is, however, illustrative of the state of free speech in the sports world and beyond. For every Michael Bennett or Anwar El Ghazi, there are many athletes who want to say something about the need to stop a looming genocide but fear losing their career. Gary Gilbert is not an outlier. There are legions of prominent donors, business people, columnists, and politicians being openly genocidal without consequence. We should praise El Ghazi for his courage, but like Colin Kaepernick before him, his dismissal will become a ghost story to tell other athletes to just shut up and play.

Imagine a world where it’s Gilbert who has to sell his stake in the Cavs, because the league doesn’t want a bigot representing their product, where El Ghazi is lauded for standing not with the bombers but the bombed. That’s a sports world worth fighting for. It’s also a long way off.

More columns ⇒