There have been references in some sympathetic quarters to the Saudi deal as “life-changing” and as such unrefusable, as though only now can Henderson finally afford a car or a family holiday. And to be fair it is transformative. He can go from ludicrously rich to brain-manglingly, obscenely rich in a single stride.
But there is an obvious moral hypocrisy here. The Saudi league is a political project, an attempt to gain influence while distracting from incompatible levels of prejudice and a bloodthirsty human rights record.
Anyone who takes those above-market fees to act as the public face of this (essentially a bribe to forget your remaining sporting ambitions) is knowingly taking part in those political aims. Which is entirely your own business if you happen to like that process, or if you want to ignore it and simply act as an economically rational agent.
But Henderson has presented himself as something else. A much-praised advocate for LGBTQ+ rights (who is now planning to promote a state where gay people are criminalised). An advocate against racism (now doing PR for a structurally racist state). A campaigner for women’s rights (giving the thumbs up for a patriarchal dictatorship).
Taking a stand is good. But it only really hits home when it overlaps with your personal interests. At the first whiff of that sweet life-changing cash all the rainbow stuff has simply been swished off the desk.
…Where does this end? Because once you start to peel this onion you realise how much it stinks. If we really are going to condemn Henderson’s moral shiftiness, we have to condemn also every Newcastle player who professes to care about human rights or the rainbow flag, to condemn the ethics-washing Premier League for allowing this kind of ownership, to ask what internal contortions it requires to make a heartening stand against racism in Britain but also promote the Abu Dhabi outreach project. And also to understand the historic role of sport in British society.
Then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Guardian reader – isn’t this an indictment of our entire society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth every youngster around the world who dreams of being paid astronomical sums to kick a ball around a field one day. Gentlemen!
So, yes — big drama in the summer transfer window of English soccer. It seems Liverpool’s captain, Jordan Henderson is eager to take on a new challenge, I mean, start a new chapter, err, quadruple his salary by plying his trade in the Saudi Arabian league. The Saudis are trying to attract some of the biggest names in the game in hopes of winning a bid to host the World Cup. Having already lured an aging Cristiano Ronaldo and missed out on Lionel Messi, they’ve started aiming for players still at the top of their game. The temptation of Henderson has occasioned much angst among the young and idealistic. But he’s been an ally! He wore the rainbow captain’s armband! He’s made public statements in support of the alphabet people, all of which were completely heartfelt and not at all mandatory exercises in ubiquitous corporate PR! Right Side of History, Right Side of History, why hast thou forsaken us?
As it happens, I mostly agree with Ronay that trying to sort the world into white hats and black hats is a waste of time. We’ve already established that celebrities, athletes, and celebrity athletes are whores by virtue of their efforts to attain their status; now we’re just haggling over the price. If I were idealistic, I might hope that a shock like this might cause people to see the inherent emptiness of virtue-signaling. None of the sanctimonious spectacle — the knee-taking before kickoff, the rainbow-colored laces on athletic shoes, the po-faced proclamations of commentators — has ever been worth a squirt of piss. If Ronay really wanted to stir things up, he could have concluded by suggesting that self-satisfied spectators should most of all be angry with themselves for being simple-minded enough to demand, and be appeased by, such superficial gestures.