Premier League Facing Its Own Morey-Esque China Problem After Mesut Özil Tweet

The Arsenal star spoke out against the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighurs

Mesut Ozil
Mesut Ozil in 2013.
Ronnie Macdonald/Creative Commons

Just like any other industry, those who work in sports, whether they be athletes or people in a team’s front office, often have deeply held political beliefs. Those can fall almost anywhere on the political spectrum; there are notably progressive professional athletes and notably conservative team owners out there, as well as the reverse. But as 2019 enters its final weeks, the convergence of sports, politics and business has taken some unexpected turns.

The flap over Daryl Morey’s comments about the protests in Hong Kong earlier this year sparked criticism from China, as well as the question of whether Morey’s fairly uncontroversial stance on the issue might cause problems for the NBA’s forays into the Chinese market. Widespread fan protests on U.S. soil ensued, with the league itself espousing a fairly noncommittal stance on the issue.

And now, something similar is happening in the world of soccer — specifically, in the English Premier League, the wealthiest on earth.

Here, the controversy surrounds Arsenal’s Mesut Özil, who last week posted comments on his Instagram criticizing the Chinese government for its treatment of Uighurs, a minority ethnic group based in China with Turkic roots (Özil himself is a third-generation Turkish immigrant to his native Germany). A recent BBC report cited “China’s systematic brainwashing of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in a network of high-security prison camps,” so … Ozil’s criticism is an entirely understandable and legitimate one.

But much as was the case with the NBA, the Premier League sees value in the Chinese market — a City A.M. article from earlier this year alluded to several high-profile Premier League teams playing summer friendlies in China — which has led to some pushback from both the league and Özil’s own team.

The Guardian reported on Friday that Arsenal released a statement distancing themselves from Ozil’s post. “The content published is Özil’s personal opinion,” it read in part. “As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”

And, much as was the case with China canceling the broadcast of NBA games after Morey made his comments, China is taking a similar approach. ESPN reported over the weekend that China pulled Arsenal’s game against Manchester City from Chinese Central Television, which is owned by the state. Not surprisingly, Arsenal are also facing criticism for not supporting Özil — adding another layer of complexity to the situation and suggesting that whatever resolution this has, it won’t be a neat or easy one.

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