Mar 29, 2022 - Sports

Premier League grapples with human rights questions after Abramovich sanctions

Illustration of a dirty and deflated soccer ball

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

British soccer for decades has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with some of the world’s most powerful suspect actors, who have flushed the sport with cash and glitz.

State of play: The most high-profile league in the world's most popular sport is now under heightened scrutiny after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, amid a crescendo of accusations that it's become a vehicle for state-affiliated billionaires to flex their countries' soft power.

What's new: Human Rights Watch in a statement Wednesday called on the English Premier League (EPL) to implement standards that will ban people associated with human rights abuses from owning equity in clubs "to whitewash their reputations."

  • "The Premier League has a responsibility to respect human rights throughout all its operations," the organization wrote.
  • Amnesty International had stepped up similar calls last year.

Driving the news: EPL policy chief Helen MacNamara told the U.K. parliament this month the league is working with Amnesty International and other groups to review its Owners and Directors Test, which outlines conditions that disqualify potential owners from taking over, to align "with international best practice."

  • During a meeting with Amnesty in December, and subsequent talks after, EPL CEO Richard Masters and other officials "appeared to be genuinely" interested in proposals by the organization to incorporate a so-called human rights test in the OADT, Peter Frankental, Amnesty program director for economics affairs told Axios.
  • "On the basis of this we believe that the PL is giving due consideration to adopting a human rights compliant test," Frankental said.
  • A league spokesperson pointed Axios to MacNamara's statement to parliament and declined to comment further.

Context: The U.K. this month sanctioned two oligarchs with ties it deemed to be close to Vladimir Putin Chelsea's Russian owner Roman Abramovich and Uzbek Alisher Usmanov, a magnate whose commercial backing has been crucial to Everton. Usmanov previously owned more than 30% of Arsenal.

  • "[O]ligarchs and kleptocrats have no place in our economy or society," the government in announcing sanctions on Abramovich. "With their close links to Putin, they are complicit in his aggression."
  • Abramovich announced his intention to sell English Premier League side Chelsea in early March as calls grew for him to be sanctioned.
  • The government is accepting bids for Chelsea's acquisition.

A human rights test would likely upend the structure of the EPL, where "money is king, and regulation is laissez-faire," author James Montague tells Axios.

  • Montague, who examined EPL's money-driven power dynamics in his book "The Billionaire's Club," described the current OADT as "extremely light-touch" and ineffective at stopping global bad actors.
  • Amid a failed effort in 2017 at stopping the takeover of Southampton by a businessman who had bribed Chinese officials for state contracts, the league modified the OADT to ban those guilty of financial crimes from owning a club.

Yes, but: That ban didn't stop Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) from becoming Newcastle United's de-facto owner in 2021, after it was taken over by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund last October.

  • U.S. intelligence has concluded MBS ordered the murder and dismemberment of government critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied MBS was involved in the killing and rejected the U.S. intelligence report.
  • "If you don't think that’s a crime worth failing the OADT for, I’m not sure there’s any crime you could say would fail it,” Montague said.

Manchester City, the reigning league champion, is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the billionaire deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Amnesty has said the UAE routinely "relies on exploited migrant labour and locks up peaceful critics and human rights defenders.”

  • City has been viewed as a template for "sportswashing." The $1.8 billion Sheikh Mansour has pumped into the club has seen it flourish into one of Europe’s top teams, after decades of mostly lingering among England’s mid-table clubs.
  • The UAE has constructed "a public relations image of a progressive, dynamic Gulf state, which deflects attention from what is really going on in the country," HRW has said.
  • The U.K. government this month condemned Sheikh Mansour for meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
  • Man City did not respond to a request for comment.

The English game is particularly vulnerable to sportswashing, Montague said. Roman Abramovich's takeover of Chelsea in 2003 kicked off an era of the EPL being awash with cash as clubs tried to compete.

  • “It’s become this kind of unwieldily monster," Montague said. "The inequality between haves and have nots in the game got wider and wider, and as other clubs couldn’t compete, they went off looking for their own billionaires that could.”

Go deeper: The EPL's Owners and Directors Test explained (Goal)

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