Soccer's moral stance is clashing with its love of cash

"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.

12 comments about "Soccer's moral stance is clashing with its love of cash".
  1. James Madison, September 7, 2023 at 7:16 p.m.

    Unfortuntely, most of us are for sale, depending on the price. An old tale involves Winston Churchill''s conduct at a diplomatic dinner in Canada during WW2. When he was in his cups, he asked his dinner partner if she would spend the night with him in return for a substantial amount of money---it may have been a million pounds   When she agreed, he repeated the question without any monetary reward. When she then huffed about her virtue, he responded, "We've settled that, madam; now we're just negotiating the payment."

  2. Jeanine Valadez, September 7, 2023 at 8:06 p.m.

    I have declined many lucrative job offers (as an engineer and later as an executive) because the hiring manager or corporation was not inclusive; in fact, sometimes, they were looking for me as their token for my ethnic (Mexican American) and LGBTQ+ (lesbian) diversity. I have also worked within systems/corporations to change policies  that bring equitable benefits for all and also to get mysoginistic/homophobic/racist employees/managers out. Bottom line, you either do the right thing or you sell yourself out. Your fans and followers (and YOUR KIDS) shall judge you accordingly. These superstars, of all people, are in NO way going to get my empathy or sympathy for their espoused plight, whining that forgoing these jobs will harm their families or career. They have substantial funds and can make the right decisions if they so choose.  MANY teams would love to have any of these players. These athletes are explicitly choosing to work for employers that literally and consistently criminalize and do terrible harm to good people. I just cannot accept that and will not support people like Henderson in any way. Importantly, athletes like him will be on the wrong side of history - THAT will be their legacy; THAT will tarnish any good that happened in their careers before they made  these troglodytic, tone-deaf, and immoral decisions.

  3. Jeanine Valadez replied, September 7, 2023 at 8:08 p.m.

    eror correction: *to create policies that bring equitable benefits to all

  4. stewart hayes replied, September 8, 2023 at 2:52 p.m.

    Henderson and the rest of the mega star money grabbers, sportsMEN all of course in SArabia, are useful idiots/appeasers.   And the appeaser's always have an excuse, like 'we're just as bad, look in the mirror'  ....oh no, not by a long shot.  Lectures are needed to those who will not stand up for what is right and make a stand.  

  5. George Miller, September 8, 2023 at 7:33 a.m.

    The whole world wants to come and play in America where 3 year old and other young minors are legally blocked from their parents on gender issues. Many getting puberty blockers or even surgery. It's laughable to hear the LGBTQIA's community lecture others about morality. Men showering in women's locker rooms. The list is endless. The lecturers need a mirror

  6. R2 Dad, September 8, 2023 at 7:37 a.m.

    Turns out the western world loves virtue-signaling--right up there with selfies.

  7. humble 1, September 8, 2023 at 11:50 a.m.

    When the treasure is being handed out, you fight for your share.  Hendo is a soccer player first.  He and others have every right to keep playing and getting paid as long as possible.  The fight for all the special rights lives on and those in the front lines should keep fighting - not shooting arrows at those hard work at making a living.  Soccer players, and pro sports athletes in general, are by definition mercenaries and have if they are lucky a decade to make a living - then no one remembers them - unless they go on TV and that is tiny percentage of players - the rest - have to live the remainder of their life with what they earned in their playing days.  Let 'em be - they gonna have enough trouble living life as they know it in that area of the world.  They will come back the wiser - just like all the players that went to China.  Key is don't spend it all!  Save a bit! 

  8. Kent James replied, September 8, 2023 at 4:51 p.m.

    Henderson has the right to earn whatever money the Saudis are paying him, but he shouldn't be offended when the LGBQT community criticizes him for taking the money to work in an LGBTQ-hostile country.  With choices come consequences.  I'm sure he could get paid to play soccer in a country that doesn't put to death homosexuals.  By playing in Saudi Arabia, he willing to help them normalize their homophobic laws for a price.  If nobody ever stands up to bad actors, nothing will stop them from behaving badly.

  9. Ian Plenderleith replied, September 11, 2023 at 6:49 a.m.

    I think this view of 'making the most of a short career' is throughly out of date now for soccer players. There are multitudes of opportunities now for players to make good money out of coaching post-career, especially one like Henderson. There are now so many broadcasters too that punditry is an obvious and lucrative route. Plus the usual sources of easy income - moribund autobiographies; lame, self-promoting documentaries; merchandise; advertising; product-endorsing - I still see Michael Ballack here in German ads every day, and he retired over a decade ago. Henderson was already earning a more than adequate wage at Liverpool. At some point it goes beyond 'looking after my family' and enters the realm of 'the numbers were just too ridiculously high to turn down'. Good for Sergio Ramos, who has abjured the oil cash to coach youngsters at his first club, Sevilla FC. It's known as: putting somethng back into the game that has given you so so much.

  10. TJ Kostecky, September 9, 2023 at 10:58 a.m.

    Ian, bravo for shining a bright light on the choices each has made. 

    "if you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don't have integrity, nothing else matters".

  11. charles davenport, September 10, 2023 at 3:26 a.m.

    Mr. Madison, that gambit has been attributed to others, including Ben Franklin.

  12. charles davenport, September 10, 2023 at 3:28 a.m.

    FIFA and the NCAA qualify as corrupt organizations...among many....(probably soccer federations of most countries)

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