Jordan Henderson and why not to get hung-up on hypocrisy

The morality of Saudi money in football, part 2

Of all the footballers to have made the choice to go to play in the Saudi Pro League, one has attracted way more criticism than any other: former Liverpool and Sunderland midfielder, Jordan Henderson. The reason for receipt of this opprobrium? Because Henderson is judged to be a hypocrite, who has jettisoned principles he had previously endorsed, most notably in his calls for football to show greater support for LGBTQ+ people within the sport, in order to pick up a massive pay packet in a country where sexuality is strictly controlled through the use of criminal law.

In this post, I want to explain why I think the emphasis upon hypocrisy, and in turn the singling-out of Henderson among players moving to Saudi Arabia, is not the best way to respond to the ethical issues raised by the raised Saudi profile within football. In short, I think this lets others off too easily, while discouraging players from taking positive stances in future.

This post is the second of three assessing ethical issues raised by the spending of Saudi Pro League clubs. The first outlined the reasons I think we have for being worried about the source of this money. The third will examine how best we might respond.

Is Henderson a hypocrite, or are those who criticise him hypocrites?

The charge of hypocrisy against Henderson is relatively easy to substantiate. He has, up to this point, been one of football’s more vocal supporters of LGBTQ+ rights, frequently wearing rainbow laces and a rainbow captain’s armband while actively reaching out to fans on social media with messages of inclusion and support. In a set of programme notes in 2021, he made the following statement:

I do believe when you see something that is clearly wrong and makes another human being feel excluded you should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. You also have a responsibility to educate yourself better around the challenges they experience. That’s where my own position on homophobia in football is rooted. Before I’m a footballer, I’m a parent, a husband, a son, a brother and a friend to the people in my life who matter so much to me. The idea that any of them would feel excluded from playing or attending a football match, simply for being and identifying as who they are, blows my mind. The idea they’d have to hide from it to be accepted? But that’s exactly how too many members of the LGBT+ community feel. We know this because they tell us. So we should listen, support them and work to make it better.

These are admirable sentiments. And, hearing them from a footballer — a group often characterised as mercenary, materialistic, shallow or unthinking — offered the hopeful possibility that football might be capable of being viewed as something other than a moral deadweight upon wider culture, that footballers could be seen as people to emulate, not just for their glamorous lifestyles, but also for their ability to inspire change.

His move to Al-Ettifaq, therefore, with all of the heavy-handed exclusions that characterise life in Saudi Arabia, has been widely characterised as a direct contradiction of the noble positions he previously advocated, a hypocritical betrayal of those who once looked to him as an ally.

Condemnation has not been universal, however. In an interview with Talksport last week, England manager Gareth Southgate held back from criticising the move:

It’s not for me to judge any individual whether they’re in football or in any other industry. I don’t think he’s changing his view on what he believes in. So now we’re in a really complex world where, what are we saying, nobody should go to Newcastle? Should nobody work for companies that the Saudis own in London or should nobody buy oil from the Saudis? I think it’s very complicated.

In many ways, this is a politician’s answer — Southgate avoids ever stating his own position, instead relying upon reader to infer it from the intended answer to the rhetorical questions (is it actually totally implausible to answer ‘yes’ to any of them..?). But what is also implied through these questions is a counter-charge of hypocrisy back towards critics of the move: your standing to be critical of Henderson’s inconsistency is made out to be dependent upon also taking a hard-line stance against any involvement with Saudi money. On this view, without insisting on the severing of any possible Saudi ties, critics are themselves being hypocritical.

Another version of this charge is the argument that most, if not all, critics would jump at the chance of an occupational move that came with a trebling (or more) of their income, that complaints over human rights are the preserve of onlookers, armchair pontificators with nothing at stake. As Henderson’s case reveals, this critique goes, although we might like to pretend we are all upstanding and principled, everyone has their price.

Henderson’s hypocrisy

There are problems, though, with any ethical discussion of the situation simply taking place at the level of competing accusations of hypocrisy, which can be seen by taking a closer look at both sides on the argument above.

With regard to Henderson himself, you get the impression that many critics would not have been so vocal if it had not been for his past record of taking progressive political stances. Criticism is not extended to other players choosing to take Saudi offers, nor to other English figures (such as Steven Gerrard) taking Pro League roles. In a comment piece by former West Ham player Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out as gay after his playing career ended, an explicit line is drawn:

I want to differentiate. Riyad Mahrez, Karim Benzema and others have gone to Saudi Arabia this summer. It is a global market and players always think they only have a career of 10-15 years and want to make as much money as possible… It’s their choice and I don’t criticise it because they have not consciously stood up and said: “We support the LGBTQ+ community.”

This is typical of the what we have seen: there is a subtle criticism of other players here, but it is clear that Henderson is being viewed as much worse and a much more worthy target for criticism.

Certainly, the hypocrisy is a problem. But I think a bigger problem is the simple fact that, by participating in what amounts to a large-scale PR campaign on behalf of Saudi Arabia, he is making himself complicit with a state with such a dubious human rights record, irrespective of whether he had expressed a commitment towards inclusive causes. Over-inflating the significance of his inconsistency risks making us lose sight of this wider problem, while potentially leading us to forget that every other player who chose to accept a Saudi offer is likewise making themselves a participant in this propaganda exercise.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we are perfectly entitled to think of Henderson as worse than the others. But it is possible to reframe the way we think about the situation so as to prevent losing sight of the fact that anyone going to play in Saudi is doing something dubious: any player that moves to play in the Pro League should be thought of as committing a wrong for making themselves complicit in human rights abuses; but we have grounds for being more disappointed in Henderson, as he had given previous evidence of being concerned enough to speak out against injustice, which may have led us to expect better of him.

Another problem in making so much depend on what Henderson has previously said is that the likely chilling effect this may have on other players, incentivising them to simply stay quiet in future, rather than ever risking speaking out on political or ethical concerns. If displaying any sort of conscience is simply going to invite further scrutiny or criticism down the line, or to make some future career moves more difficult, maybe other players will take the lesson that it is better to keep shtum and act as an amoral mercenary from the outset.

It feels better, to me at least, for us to focus on criticising the choice of players to make themselves more complicit with the Saudi regime’s efforts to realign its image, rather than just assessing whether this goes against any previous statements they have made.

Are we hypocrites for criticising?

But, here’s where the other side of the hypocrisy equation hits. Who are we to judge the choices of another person? In making a choice like this, they are able to access sums of money that will be life-changing for themselves and their family for many years to come — wouldn’t we all take the same chance if we were in their shoes? Equally, aren’t we all already tied into chains of political and economic interaction with Saudi Arabia (or other similarly dubious states), making us inconsistent hypocrites for focussing so heavily on footballers choosing to play in the Pro League?

Firstly, let’s concede one way in which this response has a point. Almost all of our lives are already inexorably entangled with the functioning of the Saudi state. The source of its funds, the vast oil deposits that lie underneath its territory, is dependent on the vast global demand for oil-based products — irrespective of the fact that the UK imports very little oil directly from the kingdom, our consumption still contributes to its economic significance as a resource. Meanwhile, our government has, for decades, been happy to sign deals supplying arms to the Saudi state. As Southgate points out in his quotes above, beyond Newcastle United, the PIF sovereign wealth has large stakes in many high profile consumer brands: Disney, Boeing, Uber, Microsoft and Starbucks are all reported to have received PIF investment.

I think it is incorrect, though, to think that our standing to comment on Saudi football involvement is dependent upon being absolutely purified of any contact with PIF money. We live in such a globalised, interconnected world that the very idea of drawing a clean line of separation between any of us and any Saudi interests seems nigh on impossible. If purity demands that I have to avoid Microsoft products, this means I have to find a job that does not ever involve consulting an Excel spreadsheet, using a Windows PC, handling Outlook email, taking a Skype call. Even if I manage that, how do I handle the task of ensuring my own purity while shopping for products, unless I can know things like the provenance of the oil from which the plastics within them were derived, or can uncover exactly how the container ships or lorries that carried them to market were fuelled?

Purity, being free from any sort of connection with Saudi interests, is a mirage. Which means any demand that, unless we are totally pure, we are hypocrites for commenting on Henderson (or Steven Gerrard, or Cristiano Ronaldo, or Riyad Mahrez, or Newcastle United) seems utterly implausible and again pushes towards a football scene where fewer people feel able to voice criticism. Southgate was right to note that we live in a really complex world. But that means it is wrongheaded to think that a simplistic picture of the moral situation, such as that you must be totally pure and uncorrupted to have an opinion, will help us to navigate that complexity.

The gist of my argument here is that hypocrisy is not really helpful as the main tool of our evaluation, as we are all, to some extent, unavoidably hypocritical: the modern world forces associations and connections upon us to things like human rights abuse (or, in other contexts, worker exploitation or environmental degradation) that go against our ideas of what we want to stand for. If this is the case, however, that we are all already complicit in some way with the abuses I discussed in the previous post, why have I continued to rely on the idea of complicity as the basis for evaluation of the Pro League?

The claim underlying this analysis is, therefore, that, although all of us are already somewhat complicit with chains of cooperation that assist in furthering the interests of the Saudi state, we should still, wherever it is reasonably possible, avoid choices that further deepen that complicity. And, again wherever we might judge it to be reasonable to do so, we might look to find ways to try to extract ourselves from some of the ways in which we are already complicit (although, acknowledging that total purity is always likely to be beyond us).

Is it unreasonable for us to expect players to turn down Saudi offers?

Does this claim offer another potential defence for players taking up Saudi offers? Which would be to say that, given the career brevity that Hitzlsperger notes, it is simply unreasonable to expect them to turn down a salary of three or four times what they could earn elsewhere. The offers are, as the adjective often used to accompany discussion of them reminds us, ‘life-changing’, in that they are capable of comfortably setting-up these players and their families for the entirety of their post-playing lives.

I think there is a possible case for mitigation here for the likes of Max Power — a solid lower-league pro who, while he has had a good career, is unlikely to be set for life — who signed this summer for Al-Qadsiah. But most of the players signing for Pro League teams have already earned what would be many lifetimes worth of wealth for the average person, making the meaning of ‘life-changing’ a shift from fabulously wealthy to unimaginably wealthy. Equally, almost all of the players concerned would still be able to attract multi-million pound offers from other leagues, were they to have turned down those from the Pro League. While there are, then, costs for any player in not choosing to play in Saudi, it certainly does not strike me as unreasonable to expect them to bear these costs; they would continue to be able to live lives of comfort and luxury in any case.

For any player that chooses to play in the Saudi Pro League, this remains a genuine and avoidable choice, one that deepens their complicity with a sportswashing project that provides cover for a ruthless and oppressive regime. It is a choice that deserves criticism, irrespective of whether they have previously expressed progressive sentiments.

More broadly, though, how can fans avoid likewise becoming further complicit in this type of project? This will be the subject of the final part of this discussion.