German National Team Displays Human Rights Message at World Cup.
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The World Cup: Activism, Upstanding, and Free Speech

Learn about how athletes and fans can engage in activism and consider the limits placed on free speech during professional sports games.


At a Glance



English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies


  • Human & Civil Rights



During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, athletes and fans alike have made the most of the media attention to express support for a range of issues including LGBTQ rights, the rights of migrant workers in Qatar, and the women’s and human rights protest movement in Iran.

This mini-lesson helps students consider how famous athletes and fans have used media attention to raise awareness about social issues and to consider what—if any–limitations there should be on free speech during professional sports games.

This mini-lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 2 activities
  • Student-facing slides

International sporting events, such as the Olympics or the World Cup, have long provided athletes and fans alike with a global audience. Over the years, some have taken it upon themselves to use these global events as an opportunity to raise awareness or engage in protests. In 1906, for example, Irish track-and-field gold-medalist Peter O’Conner climbed the Olympic flag pole and raised an Irish flag to protest the fact he was forced to compete under the British flag at the time. In the 1968 Olympics, African American Olympic gold-medalist runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the awards ceremony to protest racist laws and demonstrate support for human rights. 

These events bring together countries, cultures, and people with different values, laws, and political systems. The potential impact of such a massive and diverse international audience can cause political leaders and sports organizations to place limits on what they view as disruptive speech. Athletes are banned from engaging in political speech at both the Olympics and the World Cup. In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were stripped of their gold medals as a result of their protest. 

Host nations often seek to impose their own laws and values on athletes and fans. In the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, German sports journalist Hajo Seppelt was denied a visa to attend, a decision he believed was indicative of a broader issue with censorship in Russia. During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, team captains were told they would be penalized if they chose to wear armbands with a rainbow flag in support of LGBTQ rights. Same sex relationships are illegal in Qatar. These controversies highlight a tension between national sovereignty and the universality of human rights and raise questions around whether fans should be bound by local laws and values if they conflict with international human rights agreements.

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Lesson Plans


Share with your students that they are going to explore examples of activism and upstander behavior that took place at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The men’s World Cup is an international soccer (football) tournament held every four years. The decision to allow Qatar to host has been controversial for many reasons, including that the labor conditions for the people who built the infrastructure for the events were often extremely harsh and even deadly. 1

Then, share the text and images that appear below (and in the Slides for this mini-lesson) with your students. Read each text out loud as a class, then view the corresponding image. For each section, ask students to take note of the following:

  • One piece of information they learned
  • One aspect of the image that stands out to them

1. Showing Support for LGBTQ Rights

In the lead-up to the World Cup, the team captains of seven European teams wore armbands that read “One Love” and displayed a rainbow flag, to demonstrate support for LGBTQ rights. 2 Same sex relationships are illegal in Qatar, the country hosting the 2022 World Cup, as are LGBTQ-rights symbols such as the rainbow flag. 3 Fans were told that they could bring rainbow symbols into the stadiums during games, but many reported that officials have asked them to remove or hide rainbow symbols. 4 Teams were told shortly before the World Cup began that any player displaying a rainbow symbol would be penalized. They decided to remove their rainbow armbands, but the German national team posed before their first game with their hands over their mouths to protest the decision. 5 Many fans responded positively to the protest, but a member of a far-right party in Germany criticized the protest, saying the team should focus on playing instead. 6


At the 2022 World Cup, German national team posed before their first game with their hands over their mouths to protest the decision that players displaying a rainbow symbol would be penalized.

Sebastian EL-SAQQA/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

2. Showing Support for the Protest Movement in Iran

A young woman, Mahsi Amini, died in police custody in Iran on September 16, 2022, after being detained for wearing her hijab (headscarf) improperly, which is against the law in Iran. Her death fueled a women’s and human rights protest movement in the country. 1 At the beginning of their first match, the Iranian national team players did not sing along to their national anthem. This move was interpreted as a statement of support for the protests, and many Iranian fans in the stadium cheered in support of the team’s decision. 2 Families of the players reported receiving threats from the Iranian government as a result, and a former member of the Iranian national team was arrested for expressing support for the protests. 3 The Iranian players sang before their other games, but some fans continued to display signs and symbols supporting the protests. 4

At the 2022 World Cup, Iranian national team did not sing the national anthem at their first game, which was interpreted as a statement of support for the women’s and human rights protest movement in Iran.

AP Images

3. Cleaning Makes a Statement

Several dozen Japanese fans have remained after each game their country played—win or lose–to clean up trash in the stadiums. 1 The Japanese national team players have also cleaned their locker room after each match, a move that isn’t common practice among other teams. Their actions have influenced others. Some fans from other countries have started remaining behind after games to help clean. One Japanese fan, Tomomi Kishikawa, told the New York Times: “We believe we can make this contagious . . . We don’t need to push anyone to clean. But if we start, maybe we can be a good example of respect.” 2 Jaziba Zaghloul, an 18-year-old from Beirut, Lebanon, stayed behind to help clean up as well. She told a reporter: “There’s a sense of community when you see people care. It’s a snowball effect.” 3

At the 2022 World Cup, several dozen fans of the Japanese national team remained after each game Japan played to clean up trash in the stadiums.

Kyodo/AP Images

Place your students in small groups of 3-4 and ask them to discuss the following questions together:

  • People from all over the world watch the World Cup. How does that increase the power of actions or protests taken by fans and athletes? 
  • Do you think athletes have an obligation to use their visibility to raise awareness about social issues? Why or why not?
  • What do you think athletes and fans should do if their values are in conflict with the sport?
  • How do you think seemingly small acts, like the Japanese fans and players cleaning, can be a form of activism?
  • What do you think are your opportunities and/or responsibilities if you play a sport or attend a game? Do you think you have an obligation to set an example with your actions? Why or why not?

Finally, ask for a few volunteers to share what they discussed in their small groups with the whole class.

Organizations that run professional sports leagues often have regulations about what forms of speech both athletes and fans in the stadiums can engage in. These regulations are designed to prevent hate speech, but more controversially, also attempt to prevent certain types of political speech. Share the following information about the speech policy from Major League Soccer (MLS), the organization that governs men’s professional soccer in the United States:

Fans are allowed to display signs and symbols that advocate for social issues but are banned from the following:

  • “Displaying signs, symbols, images, using language or making gestures that are threatening, abusive, or discriminatory, including on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, ability, and/or sexual orientation.
  • “Displaying signs, symbols or images for commercial purposes or for electioneering, campaigning or advocating for or against any candidate, political party, legislative issue, or government action.” 1

Then, ask students to discuss the following questions in small groups of 3-4:

  • How might it be difficult to distinguish between speech that advocates for a social issue and speech that advocates for a specific government action?
  • What might the advantages of limiting certain types of speech during sports games be? What might the disadvantages be?
  • What limits do you think there should be on speech during professional sports games?
  • What types of speech do you think should be allowed at your school’s sports games? Why?

Finally, ask for a few volunteers to share what they discussed in their small groups with the whole class.

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Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

This is the Facing History resource that we recommend using with students throughout the activities in this mini-lesson.

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