"The Arabs used to be in the 3rd World. They have bought the 2nd World and put a firm down payment on the 1st one," the late Gil Scott-Heron sang in his smooth but politically devastating rap, B-Movie. That song was released in 1981, but it's a sharp and accurate analysis of the public relations-driven takeover of sports through Gulf oil wealth. Golf, tennis and soccer are all selling out to states that want to distract from their abysmal human rights' records with displays of well-hit balls. And we, like dumb dogs chasing a laser light on a white wall, will soon be mesmerized enough to forget where the money's coming from. Never mind the torture, did you see that shot!?!
England national team player and former Liverpool FC captain Jordan Henderson has come in for strong criticism from LGBTQ+ organizations for moving to Saudi-owned club Al-Ettifaq. Henderson had previously been open in his support for the gay rights movement. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is criminalized and punishable by death. In an interview with The Athletic (well worth reading in full), Henderson was challenged about his move to an openly homophobic country. Among some disingenuous guff about 'growing the game,' not moving for money, and the decision being in the best interests of his family, he told Adam Crafton (who is openly gay) and David Ornstein:
"The last thing I want to do is to upset you or anyone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community. All I’ve ever tried to do is help. And when I’ve been asked for help, I’ve gone above and beyond to help. I’ve worn the laces. I’ve worn the armband. I’ve spoken to people in that community to try to use my profile to help them. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do. When I hear stuff like, You’ve turned your back on us, that hurts me. I do care. I have family and friends in the LGBTQ+ community."
He's hurt and he cares, and some of his best friends ... And still he signed, because growing the game in Saudi Arabia is apparently more important. But Henderson needn't worry, he has people on his side such as Celtic FC coach Brendan Rodgers. “It’s their profession," Henderson's former boss said with characteristic blandness. "It’s their life, so they have to do what’s best for them. There are so many morality officers around the world nowadays that are judging people.”
Yes, the morality officers are the problem here. Not the morality police who arrest people because of their sexuality. I also wonder if Rodgers has had the time to read his own club's Equality Policy, which contains the following: "Celtic Football Club's commitment is to confront and eliminate discrimination whether by reason of gender, sexual orientation, marital status, race, nationality, ethnic origin, color, religion or belief, ability or disability and to encourage equal opportunities."
Watch out, Brendan — the morality officers have infiltrated your club! And pretty much every other club in the United Kingdom. They all have equality policies with similar wordings, even Manchester United, which has been experiencing some morality difficulties of its own with players like Mason Greenwood (released by the club after its six-month internal investigation followed prosecution dropping attempted rape charges in January) and Brazilian forward Antony (ex-girlfriend preparing a case against him alleging domestic abuse). United's problem is, though, that it's not just about morality. It's about the money. Both players are worth a lot — in cash terms. Or, at least, they were.
This may sound unrelated, but yesterday I received the latest bi-monthly magazine for German referees, Schiri-Zeitung, an official publication of the German soccer federation (DFB). It contains a detailed three-page guide on how to deal with discrimination during games, be it instigated by players, coaches or spectators. Its message is very similar to Celtic FC's Equality Policy. And Manchester United's too. Don't do it. Don't tolerate it. Act against it.
Yet at the top of the game this message is running up against the mealy-mouthed excuses of Henderson and Rodgers, the stuttering reactions of Manchester United, and the copious amounts of cash being pumped into soccer by states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Dubai.
It's so easy for soccer to state the right thing, but much harder to actually do it. Spare a thought for former Spanish women's team coach Jorge Vilda, fired this week just after winning the World Cup. Referring to his enthusiastic applause for suspended Spanish federation President Luis Rubiales, when he defiantly and borderline psychotically refused to resign after his unwanted kiss on the lips of Jennifer Hermoso at the post-final medal ceremony, Vilda said, "When 150 people are applauding, it's hard to be the one who isn't."
Is it really? Is it hard not to applaud an idiot just because he's your boss? And is the fact that it's hard really an excuse? Do you think your former players would refuse to run shuttle sprints in training because it's "hard"? If 150 Spanish soccer administrators ran off the edge of a cliff into a gaping moral abyss, would you follow them, Jorge? Is it not more rewarding to show some backbone and some capacity for free-thinking, as opposed to running with the mindless mob?
Soccer has master-minded the language of morality, we just don't know how to enforce it. At the bottom level, we're being clearly told what's right and wrong. At the top of the game, that ethical framework is just paying lip-service to the idea of enlightenment, where it is overshadowed and relegated by 'business considerations.'
"Civil rights, women's rights, gay rights: it's all wrong," Scott-Heron sings with ironic acrimony in B-Movie. "Call in the cavalry to disrupt this perception of freedom gone wild/God damn it, first one wants freedom, then the whole damn world wants freedom." Too right. But we should give up on hoping that soccer will lead the way.