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).
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Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.