Remarks
Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
As Prepared
Washington, DC
October 9, 2012


Thank you for that introduction.

This is a special occasion for us – the first time the United States has hosted your general assembly. So I am delighted to speak at tonight’s gala dinner. And I would like to thank the Major League Soccer Players Union – and Executive Director Bob Foose – for hosting this. Let me also thank Mike Senkowski, Jon Newman, and Eddie Pope.

Eddie, as a former DC United player, I want you to know – on good authority – that you are still a favorite of the Screaming Eagles fan club.

I’d also like to high-five my own team – The State Department’s SportsUnited office – for helping to make the connection between FIFPro and me.

Most importantly, I want to welcome the delegates from the 46 FIFPro unions – including our American and Canadian members.

I understand you represent 50,000 soccer players around the world. That’s enough to fill a moderate sized stadium! And those are a lot of people’s rights to protect!

Each one of those players has rights – not only rights as professional soccer players, or as athletes, or workers, but as human beings.

As we all know, not all professional athletes are superstars like David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo. In leagues across the world, most players are lesser known – with salaries and options that don’t even come close to the famous players. Fifty thousand players have to depend on their labor organizations, and support from FIFPro, to help safeguard their interests.

I know how committed FIFPro and its member organizations are to protecting individuals. And your many activities – awards, anti-racism campaigns, and scouting tournaments – show the world, laborers and employers alike, that employee rights and the right to collectively bargain are fundamental. I am proud to stand with you in support of those fundamental human principles.

The U.S. State Department is a strong supporter of labor rights – for working men and women. At a speech in Cambodia this summer, Secretary Clinton spoke powerfully about these principles.

She reminded her audience that workers everywhere, regardless of income or status, are entitled to universal rights, including the right to form and join a union and to bargain collectively. And she urged governments to respect those rights and ensure that men and women have fair, safe working conditions and can earn a living wage.

Our protection of the rights of working male and female athletes couldn’t be better demonstrated in American soccer. Our female stars – in soccer and other sports – have benefitted greatly from our Title IX legislation. This law mandates that men and women are entitled to the same rights of participation, benefits, and financial assistance when it comes to sports education programs or receiving federal financial assistance.

In American soccer, the results speak for themselves. Our U.S. Women’s Soccer team won the 1999 World Cup – and the Gold Medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. They are one of the premier soccer powers in the world.

Perhaps more importantly, they have raised the visibility of females excelling as athletes. We see evidence of this all around the world. So many young women – from Brazil to Barcelona, from Capetown to Calgary – now dream of becoming soccer professionals. I believe we can take some deserved credit for that.

At the State Department, we have long recognized the power of sports diplomacy to bring attention to our values and principles. For example, our own SportsUnited does the work of a sports ministry; it is fully dedicated to international sports diplomacy.

And our sports diplomacy goes back for decades. Perhaps the best example can be found in events that took place forty years ago at a gathering of table tennis teams first in Japan and later in China.

The friendship between the American and Chinese ping pong teams became a beacon of goodwill between both countries at a time when political tensions were high. And history has credited those simple human connections as a major contributor towards improved U.S.-China bilateral relations.

Through our sports diplomacy office, we continue to be actively engaged in sending our finest athletes around the world – from baseball players to ice skaters to hockey players to soccer stars.

And make no mistake. Our travelling athletes – we call them sports envoys – work hard on these trips. They don’t just show off their skills. They participate in workshops that teach the principles of team work and self empowerment. They teach young girls and young boys that sports should be for both genders.

They tell people that within a sport, there should always be respect for the athlete—respect for their work conditions and living conditions and for their individual and universal rights.

They make it clear that we believe that labor rights are human rights – and that they apply equally to men and women.

That is the power of sports diplomacy and, as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, I am deeply invested in using it to bring attention to our values and principles.

Sports diplomacy can also happen on an individual, citizen-to-citizen basis. There was a wonderful article posted on the University of Southern California public diplomacy school website. I urge you to look it up.

It’s about former U.S. Men’s Soccer Coach Bob Bradley, who is now the coach of the Egyptian national soccer team. You can imagine the challenges and opportunities before him to enhance relations between our people – and the people of Egypt.

Coach Bradley launched himself into the task. He has engaged in community outreach. He has filmed commercials promoting children’s hospitals. He has appeared on Egyptian talk shows. He even marched with thousands of Egyptians to protest the lack of security for soccer fans.

We see so many ways that sports diplomacy can bring benefits to the relationship between citizens around the world – while also drawing attention to important issues such as labor and human rights. And I’d like to mention that our International Office of International Labor Affairs has worked extensively with the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to solve lock-outs in our basketball and professional associations.

There is so much we can all do to make sure that athletes lead good, decent lives and have what anyone wants: the opportunity to feed our families, have a voice, choose our futures, and achieve our own god given potential. We want and deserve our own dignity, our basic rights and freedoms – and we want governments that guarantee them.

We have to work at all levels to create awareness. As the mother of a 15 year old boy who loves sports, I practice a little sports diplomacy at home. I find myself taking him to things like women’s soccer and basketball games.

I do that to help him understand that sports have to truly be a level playing field and not the exclusive domain of one gender.

Those little lessons can change lives. Thanks to people like you, those wheels of justice and fairness are moving forward in parts of the world where they are really needed. So let me say: thank for what you do – and may we all work for a future where dignity and protection are guaranteed, not just for every working person – but every human being.

Thank you.

[This is a mobile copy of Remarks to Delegates of the FIFPro Congress]