Birmingham hosts the World Games this July, an Olympics-like competition for non-Olympic sports. The lineup includes softball, bowling, pool, lacrosse and something called korfball. Sports offer a diversion from current events, but athletes from Russia and Belarus have been banned over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

My specialization within economics is public choice, which uses economics to study politics. What insight does public choice offer on the politicization of sports?

Public choice’s most fundamental result on democracy is individuals’ miniscule influence on outcomes. If we reduce democracy to voting (ignore campaign contributions, etc.), the probability of casting a decisive vote in an election measures influence. Decisiveness means changing the outcome by switching your vote from candidate A to candidate B.

One approximation of the probability of decisiveness is one divided by the number of votes. In Alabama’s 2020 U.S. Senate race, 2.5 million votes were cast. The probability of decisiveness in state or national elections is almost zero.

Russia is an authoritarian nation with a population of 140 million.  Russia’s World Games athletes collectively had zero influence on invading Ukraine. Should athletes be punished for an action they did not cause?

People who view nations in collectivist terms see an easy case for punishing athletes. In the collectivist vision, all Russians are on Team Russia. Team Russia deserves punishment for the invasion.

I believe in individual freedom and rejecting all forms of collectivism, including extreme nationalism. I see nations as composed of individuals possessing moral value distinct from their national identity. All Russians are not equally guilty.

Nonetheless, the sports world is canceling Russia. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League final was moved from St. Petersburg, UEFA and the World Cup have banned Russian teams, and professional tennis players cannot play under the Russian flag.

The International Judo Federation stripped Mr. Putin, who holds a black belt, of his position as honorary president and ambassador. Retracting Mr. Putin’s honors differs enormously from canceling average Russians. Mr. Putin ordered the death and destruction in Ukraine and should be charged with crimes against humanity. Cancellation is a start.

Civilized peoples conduct friendly sports competitions, as the revival of the Olympics reflects. The first modern games occurred in 1896 during the Pax Britannica between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. The games reflected the spirit of a peaceful and increasingly prosperous world.

Some brutal authoritarian regimes have sent athletes to the Olympics. I will offer an optimistic spin on this: perhaps international sporting competitions can make nations more peaceful and civilized. Just as Olympic athletes must draw on the best within themselves, the peaceful competition of the Olympics might inspire the world to be better.

Implicitly, then, outrageous, uncivilized behavior can threaten sports participation. The brutal invasion of Ukraine qualifies for this.

But what about impacting athletes? I suggest balancing the harm and the outrageous national conduct. Denying an athlete participation in one competition, even an Olympic-level competition, does not ruin a life. Lives and communities in Ukraine are being ruined.

We must further recognize that Mr. Putin is not invading Ukraine single-handedly.  He is not driving a tank or flying a plane. Tens of thousands of Russians are carrying out Mr. Putin’s orders, with thousands more helping with supplies.

What moral responsibility do citizens bear for their authoritarian government’s actions? As Jonah Goldberg examines in his brilliant Hitler’s Willing Executioners, thousands of Germans carried out Hitler’s genocide. The international community at the Nuremberg trials rejected “following orders” as sufficient to deflect moral and legal responsibility. Even Russians who just pay taxes bear some modest responsibility for Mr. Putin’s invasion.

The invasion of Ukraine launched a new cold war. During the first cold war, sports and cultural exchanges fostered understanding.  Many visiting Russians saw for themselves America’s vastly greater prosperity, undermining Soviet propaganda. But ongoing outrageous conduct requires economic and social sanctions. Life should not be normal for Russians until life returns to normal in Ukraine.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to