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Some thoughts on a recent German controversies around athletes and freedom of action

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An incident around German/Turkish soccer star Mesut Özil* and Turkish President Erdoğan has caused immense controversy in Germany—and, in doing so, it illustrates some of the problems I have written about in the past, including the poor behavior of sports organizations and their disgraceful treatment of athletes (cf. e.g. [1], [2]); intolerance against unpopular opinion, especially by the press (cf. e.g. [3], [4], [5]); undue accusations of racism (cf. e.g. [6]); and at least an attempt at “who cries the loudest wins” ([7]). A triple hit (sports organizations, intolerance, racism) is provided by [8].

*Most information and all quotes are taken from this (German) Wikipedia page; some information stems from memory of the previous reporting or general knowledge.

Özil was born in Germany and is a German citizen; however, he is of Turkish descent, has a strong Turkish connection, and has had* a Turkish citizenship. He has on repeated occasions met with Erdoğan, the controversial Turkish President, without notable objections. However, a renewed meeting, including several other players with a similar background, in Mai 2018 lead to strong protests**:

*Having a dual citizenship as a German is usually not allowed. The two main exceptions are citizens of other EU states (which Turkey is not) and those still underage (which Özil no longer is). The latter must, unless otherwise exempt, make a choice which citizenship to keep when they do become of age.

**I am uncertain what the cause of this difference in reaction was. It might have been a symptom of the increasing Leftist and media intolerance, a change in perception of Erdoğan, a greater publicity due to the ongoing Turkish election campaign or the soon following World Cup, or that some aspects of the latest meeting were different.

Diesmal wurde Özil, ebenso wie Gündoğan, nach der Veröffentlichung von Fotos der Begegnung und dem Austausch mit dem türkischen Präsidenten teilweise scharf kritisiert. Die Trikotübergabe wurde als “geschmacklose Wahlkampfhilfe für Erdoğan” verstanden, beiden Nationalspielern warf man mangelndes “politisches Bewusstsein” vor. Die Aktion wurde als “Gegenteil von gelungener Integration” bezeichnet. Der Deutsche Fußball-Bund erklärte durch seinen Präsidenten Reinhard Grindel, man stünde “für Werte, die von Herrn Erdoğan nicht hinreichend beachtet werden.” Deshalb sei es nicht gut, dass sich Nationalspieler für dessen “Wahlkampfmanöver missbrauchen lassen. Der Integrationsarbeit des DFB haben unsere beiden Spieler mit dieser Aktion sicher nicht geholfen.”


This time, Özil, just like Gündoğan [one of the other players] was partially sharply criticized after the publication of photos of the meeting and the exchange* with the Turkish President. [The handing over of one or more (sports uniform) shirts] was understood as “tasteless election campaigning for Erdoğan”, both national-team players were accused of a lacking “political consciousness”. The act was referred to as “the opposite of successful integration”. The German Soccer Association explained through its President Reinhard Grindel that it stood “for values, not sufficiently respected [considered?] by Mr. Erdoğan.” Because of this, it would not be good that national-team players allowed themselves to be abused for “his election tactics. The integration work of the DFB [the football association] has certainly not been helped by this act.”

*From context, likely the exchange of gifts. However, other interpretations are possible, including the interaction between them.

(Note that some typographical changes have been made to the original for technical reasons. The disputable placement of full-stops with regard to quotes present in the original has been preserved in both the original and the translation. Beware of the risk that the mixture of original quotes with text by Wikipedia editors can at some point have led to distortions compared to the full original quotes. Similar claims apply to other quotes below. )

There are quite a few problems with this*, most notably that Özil and Gündoğan should not lose their right to freedom of opinion** and action just because they happen to play for the national-team (or because they might be persons of public interest, idols of some teenagers, or similar). Such restrictions, barring exceptional cases***, are highly dubious when required by the press and inexcusable when by an organization like the DFB.****

*And note that this description (and my discussion of it) is just a sample: If this had been the totality, I might have been more forgiving. However, it is a sample highly compatible with what I have seen continually in other sources regarding Özil and/or the original events. (Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of other discussions, including reactions-on-reactions, including by German and Turkish politicians, journalist, and athletes.)

**To boot, Özil denies that there was a political motivation or an act of political support involved (see also below). Whether this is true, I do not know; however, his claims are not obviously implausible. This would make the reactions against him even more inappropriate, be it because of being the more unfair or for being premature and having failed to discuss the matter appropriately in private before criticizing. (Which would have been reasonably possible for both members of the press and, above all, the DFB.)

***I am far from certain that such cases exist that do not at least touch upon the area of the illegal (e.g. explicitly calling for violence against Turkish dissidents). However, they might exist, and at least some of the above would be justifiable in another setting, e.g. the Pope chastising a member of Catholic clergy for appearing to support satanists.

****In as far as we speak of opinions, rather than sanctions or threats of sanctions, it could be argued that Grindel and/or the DFB equally has a right to speak his/its opinion. However, quite generally and including the press, there is a difference between an expression of opinion like (hypothetically) “I consider Erdoğan an idiot; ergo, Özil is an idiot for supporting him” and (what practically amounts to) “I consider Erdoğan an idiot; ergo, Özil has no right to support him”. Further, it can be disputed whether an organization like the DFB is even allowed to have an opinion in areas not relating to sport and its immediate business—and the implicit condemnation of Erdoğan is certainly not acceptable. Indeed, it amounts to the same sin that Özil is hypocritically accused of committing—with the critical difference that it actually is a sin when the DFB does it. Grindel, in turn, has the right to have his private opinion, but he must not presume to speak with the authority of the DFB if expressing this private opinion. To boot, people in positions like Grindel, unlike national-team players, are among the very few where I could contemplate an argument that they should hold back their private opinions, due to (a) the risk that these opinions are given undue weight by others, (b) the risk that others mistake private opinions of the individual for the opinions of the organization he leads or is a spokesman for—again making the accusations against Özil hypocritical.

More in detail, I note:

  1. The word “tasteless” (“geschmacklose”) is not compatible with a neutral discussion; “inappropriate” is an example of a neutral alternative.

    Whether this choice of word was merely careless, an unconscious sign of aversion, or deliberate rhetoric, I leave unstated; however, in a worst case, it could imply that such acts would have been allowed, had someone more “acceptable” than Erdoğan been involved—a thoroughly undemocratic attitude. (But not one that would shock me in light of my experiences with various Leftist groups. The same can apply elsewhere without explicit mention.)

  2. Even “inappropriate”, however, would have expressed a democratically dubious attitude, severely restricting the freedom of Özil on political issues.
  3. Athletes cannot be expected to be deep thinkers, intellectuals, whatnot to a higher degree than the average person. A lack of e.g. “political consciousness” (“politisches Bewusstsein”) cannot be a legitimate point of criticism unless the same is extended to the very many others who have the same deficit. To boot, this phrase is sufficiently vague that it is unclear what is meant, making the criticism harder yet to justify.* Worse, looking at the overall scope of the debate (not just the quoted Wikipedia passage), the most likely interpretation is a euphemistic way of saying “everyone who reads the paper knows that Erdoğan is evil; Özil obviously does not read the paper”.

    *In all fairness, this might have been different in the original context.

  4. The two claims about “integration” are misplaced, very hard to defend, and likely contributed to the character of Özil’s responses (discussed below). I note that integration can validly be a matter of behavior in society (and similar), possibly* even, to some degree, the adoption of certain value norms; however, it must not be extended to requiring adherence to whatever opinion corridor (cf. [5]) is currently popular. Further, the purpose of the DFB is not integration work; Özil has no duty to help them with whatever integration work they engage in; and it is not obvious to me how Özil might have done damage**. Indeed, it can even be disputed whether Özil, himself, has any reason to currently be well-integrated into Germany: He is a player for Arsenal; the Brits might have the more legitimate reason to require his conformance.

    *To me, it is more important to show (or not show) a certain behavior than to share the value norm behind that behavior. If nothing else, value norms change over time, even in a single country, regularly within a single generation, and it is important that value norms can be discussed and criticized. Also see e.g. [5]. Requiring a more than minimal value-norm conformance would deny immigrants rights of opinion that “old” citizens have.

    **If he did not, why would the DFB mention the topic? On the other hand, I could see how the behavior of the DFB and/or media might have damaged “integration”, e.g. through unnecessarily alienating some Turks or through lending them the impression that they are second-class (current or prospective) citizens.

    In addition, while it is true that many Turks remain poorly integrated even after the first generation, it is noteworthy that Özil is born in Germany, has lived most of his life in Germany, and went to school in Germany. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, even his father was two years old (the mother is not mentioned), when he came to Germany, making Özil a virtual third-generation immigrant. To, in this situation, lead with the assumption of poor integration is highly dubious, possibly genuinely indicative of prejudice; and it would be more reasonable to look e.g. at the personal character of Özil first and at “integration” only when this is insufficient. (By analogy, I do not reject, detest, deplore, and condemn the German “Karneval” because of any problems with my integration, but because of my and its respective character—as do quite a few natives.)

  5. To presume to criticize players or politicians (especially foreign* ones) for having or aiding “values” is not the job of the DFB, unless these are immediately relevant to its purpose. For instance, if a politician made statements favoring an increase of taxation for such organizations, a reduction of physical education in schools, or an outright ban of a sport or parts of that sport**, then that is a matter that the organization could legitimately speak on. Even here, however, a factual approach and factual arguments should be assumed: To say “If this tax increase is implemented, we will be forced to considerable reductions in our activities, including youth sports.” is quite OK; to say “X is a sports-hating idiot!” is not.

    *While being from another country, culture, religion, or time cannot e.g. make an unjust act just, it can change how the actor should reasonably be treated and viewed, because the degree to which he has been acting in good or bad faith, in conformance with his upbringing and societal norms, whatnot, can change correspondingly. It can also sometimes reveal a presumed-to-be-unjust act as just, e.g. because the circumstances are that different or because the presumed victim considered the act just; and it can easily reveal a presumed-to-be-illegal act as legal, because the laws in different countries and at different times can vary considerably.

    **For instance, Sweden long had a ban on professional boxing.

    The press should obviously have more lee-way (if in doubt, to protect the freedom of the press). However, I do note my suggestions for a new press ethics, and my strong belief that the press should report facts and leave the formation of opinion to the readers—not shove its own opinion down their throats. The more so, seeing how often this would amount to the blind presuming to lead the seeing.

  6. The use of “abuse” is doubly unfortunate, because it paints Özil et co. as patsies and Erdoğan as maliciously plotting in a manner that is both speculative and rude.

A point where some criticism might have been valid is concerning the disposition of shirts, e.g. depending on what team (national?, club?, other?) they belonged to, whether they were private property or team property, whether they were “official” shirts or shirts bought privately from a fan shop (merely using the same look as the official shirts), etc. However, if this criticism has been raised at all, it has not been one of the major points and it has no major effect on the above analysis. (For which reason I have not bothered to find out the details about the shirts.)

If I had been in Özil’s shoes, I would have been deeply angered over this criticism and I would not have hesitated to stand-up for my position. Gratifyingly*, Özil did exactly that. Less gratifyingly, he did so by resorting to counter-accusations of racism.

*Indeed, in [8] I call for exactly this willingness to take a stand.

Özil erklärte am 22. Juli 2018 auf dem Kurznachrichtendienst Twitter auf Englisch: “Ich bin in Deutschland aufgewachsen, aber meine Familie ist stark in der Türkei verwurzelt. Ich habe zwei Herzen, ein deutsches und ein türkisches. In meiner Kindheit hat mir meine Mutter beigebracht, immer respektvoll zu sein und nie zu vergessen, wo ich herkomme – an diese Werte denke ich bis heute”. Für ihn sei es bei dem Treffen weder um Politik noch um Wahlen gegangen. Ferner warf Özil einigen Medien vor, sein Foto mit Präsident Erdoğan als rechte Propaganda zu benutzen, um ihre politische Sache voranzutreiben. Weiterhin erklärte er, “nicht mehr für Deutschland auf internationaler Ebene spielen” zu wollen, solange er “dieses Gefühl von Rassismus und Respektlosigkeit verspüre”. Er forderte DFB-Präsident Grindel zum Rücktritt auf, weil Grindel unfähig sei.


On July 22nd, 2018, Özil declared on the [short-message service*] Twitter, in English**: “I have grown up in Germany, but my family is strongly rooted in Turkey. I have two hearts, a German and a Turkish. In my childhood, my mother taught me to always be respectful and to never forget from where I come—values that I think of even today”. For him, the meeting was neither a matter of politics, nor of elections. Further, Özil accused some media [services/sources/…] of using his photo with President Erdoğan as Rightist propaganda, to further their political causes. Further, he declared, wanting “no longer to play internationally for Germany”, as long as he “sensed this feeling of racism and lack of respect”. He urged DFB-President Grindel to resign, because Grindel was incompetent.

*A somewhat literal translation of “Kurznachrichtendienst”. I am not aware of a corresponding English word, nor do I consider it likely that an English text would have used one: This type of largely unnecessary attempts at overly abstracted classifications and pseudo-explanations is a specialty of Germany. To boot, the word is very unfortunate, because incorrect assumptions of word division could lead to great misunderstandings: “Nachrichtendienst” is roughly “intelligence agency” (but here the appearance of this character sequence is just a coincidence).

**I have translated the German text back into English, and could possibly deviate from the original in detail. This sub-optimal procedure was partly used because the mixture of Wikipedia text and original quote might make it hard to identify the exactly corresponding statements; partly because I very deliberately have blocked Internet access to sites like Twitter, Facebook, etc. to avoid unethical tracking of my activities. For a text of this length, under these circumstances, it is faster to simply translate, probably (!) even when counting this explanation.

His justification* makes great sense, especially when combined with another source (some weeks ago), where I believe I read a statement that it was less a matter of meeting Erdoğan (as a person) than a matter of meeting the Turkish President (as a symbol or as the holder of the office). Consider, in the same line, if he had been of U.S. descent instead of Turkish: Would it be remarkable if he took the opportunity to meet with the current U.S. President or cherished an acquaintance with him going beyond a single meet-and-greet? He might or might not have had a preference for Trump or Hillary—but most people in his shoes would likely have taken either.** This even when there are other people who have an extremely low opinion of one of them (as with me and Hillary).

*But I remain at my position that he had done nothing that required a justification, this being merely an issue of averting unjustified criticism.

**In all fairness, I belong to those who might have turned down both.

I am highly skeptical towards the racism angle, however, in light of the strong left-lean of Germany media, what I have read on the Özil-controversy to date, and the common abuse of the accusation of racism for purposes like discrediting opponents. An anti-Erdoğan sentiment is a far more likely explanation for these reactions, and he would have been far better off having combined his justification of the meeting with a few choice word on freedom of opinion and the need to respect the choices of others—as would society: In this case, he would have helped point the way towards a more reasoned and tolerant debate climate; as is, he worsened it through too weakly supported accusations. (In his defense, he is a soccer player—not an intellectual. The situation might also have been different, had he e.g. spoken only of the DFB or Grindel, where he could very well have had insider knowledge of importance.)

I am not certain that Grindel must resign, but a retraction and an apology would be the minimum: His actions in this issue have done more harm than good, he has proven to be a part of the intolerance problem of modern society, and he has further proven himself to be a part of the problem with athletes’ rights vs. their organizations. I can also understand how Özil, personally hit by his behavior, would see his resignation as necessary. I might even, in his shoes, have demanded a resignation to emphasize the strength of my protests and to try to make clear that the Left and the PC crowd are not the only sources of dissatisfaction and that it is dangerous to just fold for their loud cries (cf. [7]). (Whether he is incompetent, as claimed by Özil, I cannot judge beyond what is implied through his actions in this issue.)

Finally, the DFB has in turn rejected any accusation of racism in a very blanket manner and said e.g. “Die Abrechnung von Mesut Özil schießt aber über jedes nachvollziehbare Maß hinaus und lässt keinerlei Selbstkritik erkennen.” (“However, the reckoning* by Mesut Özil shots over any understandable measure [sic!**] and reveals no sign of self-criticism*** whatsoever.”)

*This, in approximately the sense used in “there will be a reckoning”, is a reasonable translation of both the literal and metaphoric senses of “Abrechnung”. However, the English version likely comes across as more drastic than the German.

**The weird mixed metaphor is present in the original and is idiomatically freakish even in German. Something like “Özils Antworten gehen zu weit und mangeln an Selbstkritik” (“Özil’s answers go to far and lack in self-criticism”), would have been a far better formulation.

***“self-perspective” or similar might be closer in intended meaning.

While I agree that the accusations of racism are over-blown, Özil’s general negative reaction is justified. I see no obvious reason to fault him for too little self-criticism (there has been no* proof that he has done anything wrong!); while the reaction by the DFB hints that it lacks in the corresponding quality. Further, I must make the depressing observation that many an athlete has been accused of e.g. racism on similarly flimsy grounds—and, in those cases, it has typically ended either with the athlete being forced to offer an “apology” or the athlete being sanctioned. This up to and including a refusal to participate in global championships! (And despite it being highly, highly dubious to exclude even a genuine racist from competition based on opinion. If nothing else, absent even the slightest shred of sympathy for the rights of the offending athlete, even the most fanatical anti-racist must recognize that the absence of competitors devalues the event and the accomplishment of the eventual winner.) A similar case is present in [8], although involving a trainer rather than an athlete.

*Barring something that has gone past me during a more than two-months controversy that I have only followed casually. If so, it is not mentioned in Wikipedia either.

Excursion on my opinions of Erdoğan:
In light of my experiences with the PC crowd, I stress that I do not defend (or accuse) Erdoğan. The above deals with societal issues based on an example that happens to tangentially involve him—no more, no less. From what I have seen so far, Erdoğan is problematic, possibly highly problematic, in terms of e.g. his approach to topics like democracy and human rights, and chances are that Turkey would be better off without him. On the other hand, my knowledge of the overall Turkish situation is shallow, and I would not condemn him wholesale before having done considerably more research, especially as his position and actions might have been exaggerated or misrepresented in German media (which would by no means be a unique event). To boot, it is not a given that he is the “greater evil”: Looking e.g. at the rise of ISIS in the power vacuum left by the Saddam Hussein (an indisputable dictator with countless lives on his hands, and whose demise I whole-heartedly welcomed), keeping Hussein might have been the lesser evil…

Excursion on hate speech:
It might be interesting to compare the above with my recent discussions of hate speech, both with regard to how hate-speech accusers often proceeded and how my interpretation was more forgiving in those cases.

While I do say that there have been a number of statements made that have been e.g. wrong, rude, or propagandistic, I do not: Accuse any of the parties of hate speech; call for legal bans on anything said or done;* claim that others must censor them for the good of society; or call for anyone to self-censor**. This is very much unlike a typical hate-speech accuser.

*But note that specifically the collectors of the examples did not necessarily imply such demands.

**With the single exception that the DFB and its representatives should stay out of certain issues—and this exception for reasons that do not relate to whether the statements are right or wrong, or worthy of condemnation in and by themselves; rather that it would be, in some sense, an abuse of its role to enter these issues with any opinion. Cf. an excursion in [8].

Also note that when I see an interpretation as merely probable above, I try to take the trouble to actually speak of a “probable” (or similar) interpretation—I have an awareness that my interpretation could be faulty. (But I do not rule out that I, on occasion, have been or will be unintentionally careless in this regard.) In contrast, hate-speech accusers tend to jump to the worst possible interpretation and take it as the only possible interpretation.

When we now look at how “forgiving” my interpretations are, there are three underlying differences: Firstly, above I argue a “lesser crime” than the collectors did—the question is not one of “hate speech: yes or no?”, but of whether the speech can be considered fair and correct. Secondly, I have more context available than in most of their examples, making the room for ambiguity and misinterpretation smaller (and some other issues, notably a preceding Hebrew–English translation, are irrelevant, which also reduces the risk of misinterpretation). Thirdly, their examples should be seen in light of their own obvious hostility, including risks like cherry-picking, removal of exculpating context, or even malicious distortion.* (While I am not infallible, I at least try to be neutral.)

*Notably, if they had had more incriminating information to provide (e.g. a damning situational context or surrounding statements that would have made a more negative interpretation likelier), it is reasonable to assume that they would have included it. Because they did not, the likelihood of more negative interpretations is reduced.


Written by michaeleriksson

July 27, 2018 at 1:00 pm