Soccer Fans, Don’t Root for a Team Based on Genetics

A soccer ball through glass.

(© W.Scott McGill/Fotolia)

Editor's Note: This op/ed is in response to our Big Question of the month: "Should shared genetics play any role in encouraging sports fans to root for a certain team?"

23andMe is taking a lot of heat as one of the DNA aggregators whose databases may not be secure from prying third-party eyes. That is a huge issue, but the company is engaging in even more troubling behavior—using genetics to sponsor racism.

The ad campaign urges that you choose to root for a team based on genetics—theirs and yours.

There is plenty to condemn when it comes to racism in international sports. Fans taunting black and minority athletes is a huge problem. No sport has been as beset by racial taunting as soccer. Which is why the current advertising campaign by the genetic testing company 23andMe and Fox sports is especially foul.

With the U.S. men's team eliminated from the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, many potential American fans were left without a primary rooting interest in the upcoming summer tournament. And that would be a disaster for Fox, which will be carrying the games.

The network teamed up with 23andMe to urge American soccer fans not to tune out the World Cup. Instead the ad campaign urges that you choose to root for a team based on genetics—theirs and yours. Given the fact that ethnicity and race are mainly cultural and social constructs, not biological, this suggestion seems more 19th than 21st century in terms of its justification.

The ads say, "root for your roots." Send your spit off to 23andMe for a DNA test and you might discover most of your genes came from one of the countries that did qualify for the biggest event in soccer. Saudi Arabia, for example. Or Panama, Argentina, Serbia, Senegal or Iran. So if you and the team have the same genes - voila, you have someone and something to root for. Soccer hooligan bigots everywhere must be thrilled by this twaddle.

There is no correlation between genetics and who is a member of a nation's soccer team. People from many ethnic and racial backgrounds play for many nations. There is no Argentinian or Croatian team genotype. And why would information about your genetic ancestry lead you to root for a particular athlete or team? How about the team's skill, not their skin color or biological makeup?

What genetic difference is it that we are going to root for anyway—the immune system differences between Switzerland and Egypt?

And are there really genes to be found that determine with certainty that you or the team you are watching are really Panamanian? Hardly. Panama is a political entity that came into existence in 1903 not a biological species. And, do we really need an ad campaign telling us, falsely, that the nations of the Earth can be sorted out neatly into clear racial groups based on their heredity? What genetic difference is it that we are going to root for anyway—the immune system differences between Switzerland and Egypt? Markers for bone density between Argentinians and Russians?

The 'root for your roots' campaign comes at a horrible time, just when FIFA is trying to root the racism out of the World Cup. It is built on bogus science about the genetics of how we define nations and ethnic groups. It appeals to the racism in us to pick a team we can root for. And it reinforces racial and ethnic stereotypes about human behavior and nationhood that are rooted in history, culture, economics, colonialism and prejudice, not ancestry, genetics or biology. This is not the way to introduce the world to genetic testing.

[Ed. Note: To read the counter viewpoint, click here. Then visit leapsmag on social media to share your opinion: Who wins this debate?]

Arthur Caplan
Dr. Arthur Caplan is the Drs. William F and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine in New York City. Prior to coming to NYU School of Medicine, Dr. Caplan was the Sidney D. Caplan Professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, where he created the Center for Bioethics and the Department of Medical Ethics. Caplan has also taught at the University of Minnesota, where he founded the Center for Biomedical Ethics, the University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia University. He is the author or editor of thirty-five books and over 725 papers in peer reviewed journals. His most recent books are The Ethics of Sport (Oxford University Press, 2016 with Brendan Parent), and Vaccination Ethics and Policy (MIT Press, 2017 with Jason Schwartz).
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!

A stock image of a home test for COVID-19.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.

Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Christi Guerrini and Alex Pearlman

Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.