The migration of professional athletes has entered the news once more in recent weeks. In Chinese association football (soccer), quotas on the number of foreign athletes permitted on the pitch have been implemented to curb the boom in spending which has attracted players such as Carlos Tevez, Oscar, Hulk, Asamoah Gyan and Graziano Pellè to the Chinese Super League. In further high profile news, freshly inaugurated President Donald Trump’s use of executive orders to restrict the movement of people from predominantly Muslim countries could affect the movement of athletes into the North American territory.
This executive action led the NBA to request clarity on the potential impact on the league, with the Toronto Raptors in Canada creating potential visa issues for a handful of franchises and players. Similarly, the move caused Great British Olympian and Somalian refugee, Mo Farah, to question his ability to travel in and out of the US having moved his family from London to Portland in 2011 as part of Nike’s Oregon Project.
While Trump’s policy on migrants links explicitly to the post-911 era and a hardening of political discourse towards migration in the United States, it also highlights the spectre of moral panic on both sides of the political divide. For example, since Mo Farah’s release of his social media statement, the UK Home Office have confirmed that any ban would not apply to Farah as a British national. Such flash points often ignore the prominent role of overseas quotas, restriction, visa applications and their circumvention in the experiences of migration for many athletes. As Thomas Carter highlighted in his 2011 paper on the relationship between migrant athletes and state apparatus, the relationship between athletes and these aspects of sport migration processes are a significant aspect of day-to-day experiences for many. In British sport, the relationship between athletes, national and supranational boundaries has consistently been experienced through the Kolpak Ruling, which has impacted both codes of rugby and most notably cricket due to the prominence of the sport in South Africa. This ruling allows citizens of countries which are part of European Union Association Agreements the same rights to freedom of movement enjoyed by citizens of EU member states and has been a feature of the EU sporting landscape since the ruling in 2003.
The role of restriction and circumvention in the relationship between migrants and institutional structures was compared to the operation of a tap by Stephen Castles. It is within this space my doctoral research resides, centering on labour migration in professional basketball. Within basketball the role of quotas is felt by players around the globe as national federations grapple with tensions between creating high quality sporting spectacles and preserving space for players who are eligible for federations’ representative teams in tournaments such as the FIBA World Cup and Olympics.
Quotas are intended to diminish the impact of North American athletes and are a consistent feature of the basketball landscape, with federations altering this mandate as they see fit. The operation of professional leagues, state border controls and clubs both alongside and against individuals further complicates the lives of mobile athletes seeking to prolong their careers, navigating not only the tiered complications of nation-state visa requirements, but also the league requirements while competing with other athletes for a precious few spots.
One example of the spaces athletes can move to which employ such policies is the British Basketball League (BBL). The BBL provides one of a seemingly endless number of professional options available to athletes searching for a professional basketball contract. Athletes attracted to the BBL encompass not only those who have come through the highly visible North American college system, but also those who have come through academy routes both in Europe and beyond. The BBL, while not at the forefront of European basketball, highlights a league with a high negative balance between exports and imports of basketball players (there are far more players coming into Britain than there are British players leaving to play abroad), and as such feels the strain of attempting to maintain and increase nationally available players to fulfil Olympic funding requirements. The need to be mindful of the implementation of overseas player quotas is therefore significant and highlights the day-to-day reality of migratory boundaries. This situation has led the league to implement a maximum of five overseas players per game with only three able to play on a non-EEA visa.
Within these contexts, overseas players seeking contracts are frequently viewed as outsiders who enhance clubs’ performances but lack meaningful interest in the local area or the team and impinge on opportunities for locally developed players. Mark Falcous and Joseph Maguire conducted research into fans’ attitudes towards players at Leicester Riders. Falcous and Maguire found that, though there were a variety of attitudes, responses were mediated through a local lens concerning players’ effect and commitment to the local area. Players are wanted as a talented necessity for the club’s status, though questioned seemingly for commitment to the local ambitions which drive overseas quotas shaping their experiences.
In trying to negotiate such boundaries the acquisition of dual-nationality status can be amongst athletes’ key considerations in the pursuit of a professional basketball career. Within my research, eight players had dual-nationality status. Their access to countries had different permutations dependent on the situation they were entering. Dual-nationality status for players was often garnered through parental routes, with players trading on the wider display of sovereignty offered to family members. Players in this situation are at the behest of quotas, but dual-nationality status is a way in which players avoid quotas or manipulate routes through and across state and sporting boundaries. Such responses to quotas by athletic migrants betray key ambiguities in attempts to comprehend the mobility of athletes, and the regularity with which restrictions are faced.
As the British government approach Brexit and consider the role of immigration in the process, the potential tightening of quotas and removal of freedom of movement status for EEA nationals will change this landscape. However, the experiences of the athletes in my research show the continuing background of restriction and circumvention is already a visible feature of athletic migrations. While flash points such as Trump’s EO, the Chinese government’s implementation of more stringent quotas and Brexit draw attention to these daily issues, the day-to-day reality is that the project of controlling the migration of athletes is ongoing, and the game of navigating such boundaries is one athletes will have to continue playing.
Christopher Faulkner has recently completed his PhD and is a sessional lecturer at the University of Worcester. His doctoral research focuses on the experiences of migrants in professional basketball. You can find him on Twitter @CJCFResearch