In light of the social uproar following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Formula One has been thrust into the spotlight by its only Black driver: Lewis Hamilton. The six-time world champion has been increasingly vocal about combating racism in the sport and in the world writ large, and he’s used the Black Lives Matter movement as inspiration for Mercedes-AMG’s new racing livery for the shortened 2020 season. In recent days, F1’s parent company Liberty Media also launched the “We Race as One” initiative and created a task force to “fight against any form of discrimination.”
It’s possible F1 is waking up a bit. But while the steps it is taking to advocate for social change are commendable, the sport needs to look within its own house and also address its own controversial races in places like Azerbaijan and Bahrain.
F1 is a complex thing, and how it makes its money is even more so. At the top, you have the circus owners, the likes of Liberty Media now (formerly Bernie Ecclestone, and a whole other essay could be devoted to him alone.) In the middle, you have the racing teams, and at the bottom, you have racing drivers who are willing to do almost anything to win. At a team level, drivers usually turn a blind eye to many questionable practices that ultimately fund the squads, such as sponsorships from corporate monopolies or less-than-desirable investors.
After all, getting two F1 cars and an entire team of people around the globe for the majority of a year isn’t cheap—it costs anywhere from $130 to $410 million per season.
At a sport level, however, things become more transparent, and therefore more bizarre. While it’s not that hard for a team like McLaren to hide individual sponsors behind corporation names, etc., it’s much harder for Liberty Media to hide the fact that it collects generous sums of money from some of the most corrupt governments in the world in exchange for hosting a race. How about Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Russia, China?
Chase Carey, Chairman and CEO of the world’s second most-watched sport, may claim that “Formula 1 needs to be more inclusive and diverse” and go as far as donating $1 million of his personal money to a foundation effectively established by his own company (how’s that for generosity?), but the truth is that he’s undermining all of these lukewarm initiatives by continuing to exchange money with some very dirty and bloody hands. Even worse, Liberty Media has yet to highlight the steps its initiative will take to improve diversity, or how exactly it will use the money it receives.
One of the newest jewels of the F1 season is the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which takes place in the capital city of Baku. Azerbaijan is one of the world’s worst offenders in human rights. According to Human Rights Watch and other various reports, Azerbaijani authorities freely and frequently imprison and torture activists, journalists, political dissidents and anyone else caught speaking out against the regime. “While criticizing the increasing crackdown, Azerbaijan’s international partners have failed to set conditions for future cooperation that will help secure rights improvements,” the organization says.
Imagine if there were a big, lucrative sport that could apply such pressure. If only one existed!
Things aren’t any better in the Kingdom of Bahrain, where its human and civil rights situation is described as “dire” by the 2020 World Human Rights Report. The country’s long list of atrocities includes executing people who haven’t had a chance to undergo proper trials, jailing everyone who opposes the ruling regime, and outright banning all independent media.
While countries like Russia and China are slightly “less evil” to the naked eye, let’s not forget that billions of people live under constant fear and oppression under power-hungry and power-rich governments that threaten to take whatever little rights they have. Let’s not forget for one second that in these countries, being LGTBQ, a religious or ethnic minority, or anything other than “their normal” could result in a life of slave labor or even death.
And what’s Chase Carey, Mr. Formula One, willing to do? Not a damn thing. And if he is, he hasn’t put out a pretty press release about it.
Yes, it’s good to come up with initiatives, and even to run them at half of their potential. In the end, doing something good, even if it’s half-assed, is better than not doing any good at all. And yes, I’m happy that Hamilton is outspoken and forces major parties to hold painful and difficult conversations. But Lewis, my man, you and I know where F1’s biggest area of opportunity is, and doing anything other than dropping these races and finding more—how do I put it?—humanitarian venues is not going far enough. Again, it is commendable that Hamilton—probably racing’s highest-profile person of color—is speaking out against racism, and that F1 is backing his play. But doing that while racing in oppressive, authoritarian countries because the money is good smacks of hypocrisy.
Back in the States, it’s NASCAR nowadays that’s trying to right its troubled past and reform its policies, per se, after banning the Confederate flag at all of its races. Sure, it’s going to be an entirely different challenge to enforce the ban, but it’s definitely a move in the right direction in terms of inclusion and racial justice.
Furthermore, these calls being made by large corporations serve as examples that pressure can be applied on local, state, and even federal entities to get with the times or suffer the consequences. Most recently, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced that it would not host events in places where the Confederate flag “is a prominent, sanctioned symbol,” such as in Mississipi. On Thursday, July 2, Mississipi officially modified its state flag and removed the Confederate symbol from it. If a collegial sports association can do it, why can’t a multi-billion-dollar global sports series?
Various governments around the world are actively “sportswashing” their true identities by luring global sports like soccer, F1, Formula E, and even the Dakar Rally. It’s nothing new, either. Sadly, people tend to forget what goes on in those places the other 51 weeks of the year, when the world’s media isn’t camping out to see who drove around a track fastest or kicked a ball the hardest.
If you want us, the fans, to take the sport, its teams, and its drivers seriously when it comes to the world’s injustice, start by doing more and talking less.