On Aug. 29, William Byron won his first career NASCAR Cup Series race driving the No. 24 Liberty University car. The win earned the private evangelical Christian university some positive press after weeks of less-than-flattering headlines (see: former president Jerry Falwell Jr.). ‘Sportswashing’ is a term typically associated with Middle Eastern countries accused of human rights violations trying to manipulate their international image through positive associations with sports teams. But one could argue—as Syracuse University Sports, Media and Society Professor Dennis Deninger did—that Liberty’s efforts under Falwell (and his father before him) to legitimize the school’s religious and political ambitions and alter the perception of the Virginia-based institution through on-field/track success could be interpreted as an example of ‘sportswashing’ on domestic soil.
Our Take: The term ‘sportswashing’ was popularized in 2015 by the Azerbaijani Sports for Rights campaign. The effort called out the Eurasian country’s government for using prestigious sponsorships and the hosting of prominent sporting events (like the European Games) to distract from their dismal human rights record. But Grant Son (Sports Management and Entrepreneurship Professor, Columbia University) explained that while the phrase is relatively new, “the practice of using sports to rebrand or reposition how the international community looks at a country—or even a brand or product—has existed for a long time. Just look at how countries have used hosting of Olympic Games (think: Germany ’36) and World Cup Tournaments.”
While most associate ‘sportswashing’ with attempts by authoritarian regimes to whitewash their respective countries’ images, sports can also be used to ‘wash’ money. Said Son: “These wealthy families and wealthy countries have found one way to deploy their wealth and to maintain a global presence is to take ownership of a sports club” (think: City Football Group/Manchester City, Qatar Sports Investments/PSG).
Founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell as Lynchberg Baptist College in 1971—then called Liberty Baptist College in ’76—the Christian university for evangelical believers was rebranded as Liberty University in 1985. “Dropping ‘Baptist College’ from the name was the first indication [Falwell Sr.] wanted to change the perception of the school,” Deninger said. The 1989 hiring of former Cleveland Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano became Falwell Sr.’s first attempt at buy relevance—and credibility—through sports. Deninger explained, “The move was meant to signal Liberty’s arrival to the big-time; that LU was going to be aligning itself with the remainder of the collegiate landscape rather than operating [in a silo] as just a narrow-viewed Baptist college.” For what it’s worth, Liberty football is still operating as an independent. Prospective conferences have been unwilling to align with the school due Falwell Jr.’s radical political views.
The need to purchase prestige is where the fine line between sports marketing and ‘sportswashing’ sits. “If you’re marketing, you’re trying to draw on the emotional capital that sport generates amongst fans,” Deninger explained. “‘Sportswashing’ is the process of trying to buy that capital. It’s buying a seat at a table you don’t belong at” (see: Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup). Liberty spending $2 million per year on an SEC-quality head coach (albeit, one with considerable baggage) could certainly qualify as an example. “If Liberty had a history of winning football games, [hiring Hugh Freeze] would fit with that tradition. But when [a school that just joined the FBS as a full member in 2019] makes a big move like that to try and leapfrog tradition, you can accuse them of ‘sportswashing,’” Deninger said.
There’s an argument to be made that Liberty’s pursuit of athletic success is no different from any other school looking to drive awareness, attract students and placate alumni. Son reasoned, “Liberty is competing in a very competitive marketplace. They want to develop a competitive advantage, and it probably takes less time to build a sports program than it would to build a research institution.” He also suggested the school’s deal with Hendrick Motorsports was not part of an elaborate attempt to ‘sportswash,’ but an example of a “traditional sponsorship in a bit of an untraditional category” (akin to University of Phoenix putting its name on the Arizona Cardinals’ stadium).
One problem with trying to buy on-field success is that it brings attention. “It’s a double edged sword,” Deninger explained. “There’s so much more media paying attention today than there was in past generations. If you don’t belong, and you step up to the table anyway, you risk investigators diving deeper and exposing the negative findings from those investigations.” Remember, upstarts accused of ‘sportswashing’ are likely doing it for a reason.
Son doesn’t see the threat of negative exposure as a real deterrent to those ‘sportswashing.’ While he acknowledges news channels will continue to point out the negative aspects associated with a country (or in Liberty’s case, a school) looking to buy on-field glory, “the ESPNs and CBS Sportses of the world only show the beautiful side [of sports], and casual fans watching may not even know about the atrocities committed.” In other words, the sports fan watching either already knows of the negative events and is tuning in anyway or is oblivious and unlikely to learn of them during the game.
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