The Erasure of Mesut Özil
“Friends and advisers had warned Özil, the Arsenal midfielder, that there would be consequences. He would have to write off China as a market. His six million followers on Weibo, the country’s largest social network, would disappear. His fan club there — with as many as 50,000 signed-up members — would go, too. He would never play in China. He might become too toxic even for any club with Chinese owners, or sponsors eager to do business there.
Özil knew this was not fearmongering. He was aware of China’s furious response — both institutionally and organically — to a tweet by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the N.B.A.’s Houston Rockets, only a few weeks earlier. Yet Özil was adamant. He had been growing increasingly outraged by the situation in Xinjiang for months, watching documentaries, consuming news reports. He believed it was his duty, he told his advisers, not so much to highlight the issue but to pressure Muslim-majority nations — including Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had served as best man at Özil’s wedding — to intercede.
And so he pressed send.
How much of what followed can be traced back to that tweet is contested. Özil is convinced that is the moment everything changed. Arsenal is just as adamant that it is not. There is no easy, neat way of bridging the divide between those perspectives. Perhaps both are true. Perhaps neither is. Neither Özil nor Arsenal was willing to discuss their differences on the record.
The outcome, regardless, is the same. A few days after Özil went public, the Premier League’s two broadcast partners in China, CCTV and PP Sports, refused to air an Arsenal match. When the latter did deign to show Arsenal again, its commentators refused to say Özil’s name.
His avatar was removed from video games. Searching the internet for his name in China brought up error messages. (It was reported his Weibo account was disabled, though that was not true.) Very deliberately, though, and seemingly at the behest of an authoritarian government, Mesut Özil was being erased.
…In hindsight, Arsenal’s reaction to Özil’s decision to speak out was — at least — inconsistent. Publicly, the club moved quickly to distance itself from his comments. Privately, it considered punishing him.
His tweet, and a simultaneous Instagram post to his more than 20 million followers on that service, had caused considerable problems — not just at Arsenal, but also for the Premier League. China, after all, was its largest foreign broadcast partner, and its biggest foreign market, and the league could not afford — even in a pre-Covid-19 world — to have its games blacked out, to have its sponsors and its fans close their wallets.
…Conscious of that, Arsenal executives urged Özil to avoid political statements, or at least to ensure he avoided any association with the club if he continued to make them. When the club sent out its merchandising celebrating Chinese New Year, it made sure to remove Özil from any of the materials.”
There are other sportsmen such as LeBron James and Lewis Hamilton who have taken stances with little repercussion and so now entire leagues and teams have participated in the Black Lives Matter movement, including the Premier League and Arsenal.
“Eager to avoid the kind of public dispute that had imperiled the N.B.A.’s billion-dollar business relationship with China, the Premier League did its best to stay above the fray. But the league and its clubs seem to pick and choose their interventions. A few months after Özil’s tweet, players representing the Premier League’s 20 clubs — Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin was a leading advocate — informed the league that they would begin purposeful displays of support for the Black Lives Matter movement during games. The league quickly acquiesced to its players’ political awakening.
And last week, after Arsenal’s captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, tweeted in support of protests against police violence in Africa, the club issued its own statement. “To our Nigerian fans,” it began. “We see you. We hear you. We feel you.”