Ethical Fandom in an Era of State-Owned Teams: The Case of Newcastle United

| January 28, 2022
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St. James Football Stadium- Newcastle. Photo credit: Steve F-E-Cameron via Wikimedia Commons.

Mild spoiler alert if you’re someone who cares about the TV show “Ted Lasso” or are simply anti-spoiler

The feel-good hit comedy show “Ted Lasso” imagines what would happen if, improbably, an American football coach were placed in charge of an English soccer (football) team—in this case, AFC Richmond.

In this essay, I focus not on this hilariously unrealistic premise, but rather on a type of ethical dilemma explored in the show’s second season. One of AFC Richmond’s major sponsors is the fictional company “Dubai Air,” which is owned by the same company that owns an oil company in Nigeria and is a major polluter that country. When revelations about the company’s environmental record come to light, one of the team’s Nigerian players pulls out of an advertisement deal for Dubai Air. Then, in an act of corporate disobedience, the entire team covers the Dubai Air patch on their uniforms, making it clear that this is a reaction to the corruption and malfeasance of the company and the Nigerian government. Happily (in the show) and unbelievably, the financial fallout from this episode appears to be minimized, and somehow the consequences for the team’s operations don’t appear to be a pressing issue for the remainder of the season.

The episode is fictional, but the circumstances are not. Many teams are owned by individuals and companies that engage in legally and morally dubious activities. For players and for fans, it is important to look at the source of the riches that are funding the world’s most beautiful, ubiquitous, and profitable game, as well as the motivations of the owners of these clubs.

I argue that the most problematic trend is the acquisition of clubs by states—particularly ones with egregious human rights records—and the image-rehabilitation these acquisitions are intended to facilitate. Specifically, I have in mind the recent acquisition of the Premier League soccer club Newcastle United. In October 2021, a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), completed its takeover of Newcastle United.1 Its new owners may very well transform Newcastle United from a club facing relegation to a contender for the Champions League and Premier League titles: Newcastle United’s ambitious new owners are among the wealthiest owners in professional football, and they intend to use this wealth to advance the club. The news of this takeover has been welcomed by Newcastle fans dreaming of winning years to come—in fact, in 2020 97 percent of polled Newcastle fans supported the Saudi takeover.2 However, the club’s success is likely to come at a high ethical cost to those supporting a club that, like the fictional AFC Richmond, is propped up by dubious wealth. Yet the wealth’s dubiousness is not entirely due to accounting—though it may be3—but to one of the motivations behind PIF’s acquisition of Newcastle United: to rehabilitate the image of one of the most controversial international political figures right now, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the chairman of PIF.

For those not aware, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as “MBS,” is credibly accused by the UN and United States of having ordered the 2018 execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi Embassy in Turkey.4The United Nations’ investigator into Khashoggi’s murder, Agnès Callamard, was even threatened by Saudi officials over her investigation, and the subtext was that it was a death threat.5 Khashoggi’s assassination was the most brazen action in recent years taken by a political leader intent on crushing any criticism of him by journalists.6 MBS was also behind the domestic anti-corruption campaign that disregarded most of what we think of as requirements of the rule of law. The Saudi government imprisoned “hundreds” of wealthy citizens in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, and “To leave the Ritz, many of the detainees not only surrendered huge sums of money, but also signed over to the government control of precious real estate and shares of their companies—all outside any clear legal process.”7 Most serious of all, MBS has been one of the leading figures driving the Saudi-led coalition’s involvement since 2016 in the civil war in Yemen. During this military intervention, according to the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, Saudi airstrikes have hit schools and hospitals, perhaps even intentionally.8 Saudi-led blockades have also contributed to fuel shortages in Yemen.9

 

Sportswashing

 

One interpretation of what is occurring in the case of Saudi Arabia and Newcastle United is that MBS, through PIF, is engaged in “moral laundering” or “sportswashing,” in which individuals, through targeted investments, can “launder” their dirty image, providing new, positive associations with their name.10  Specifically, Branko Milanovic has described “moral laundering” as occurring when “corrupt individuals, by donating a small portion of their stolen assets, can present themselves as socially responsible businesspeople, establish important contacts, and gain entry into the more rarified social circles of the countries where they have transferred their money.”11

The acquisition of Newcastle United is one that loosely fits Milanovic’s definition. The Saudi PIF has most recently been bolstered through a controversial anti-corruption campaign in which twenty companies were removed from Saudi citizens accused of corruption and placed under the ownership of PIF.12 However, with the acquisition of Newcastle United, PIF is not “donating” money to the club—rather, it is making a sound financial investment in a sports team that has the potential for serious financial returns.

Though one could reasonably object to the purchase of a soccer club being anything like a donation to a hospital or university, saving a soccer team from being relegated is equivalent to throwing a lifeline to the club, since it is difficult to weather the financial fallout from relegation to the Championship League. Being kicked out of the Premier League means losing out on lucrative television contracts, as well as difficulty retaining players who can and want to play in the top division. Given the pride and devotion of football fans to their clubs, investing in a club is akin to investing in the community. Indeed, several states have acquired football/soccer clubs in the last decade, including Qatar’s acquisition of Paris Saint-Germain and the United Arab Emirates’ of Manchester City.13 These acquisitions have led to, for instance in the case of Manchester City, a vast financial impact in the community, both good and bad.14 No doubt such investment programs generate a good deal of goodwill—manifested as a form of soft power—that makes it more difficult for politicians to speak out against the actions of these states, and for fans of the club to look a gift horse in the mouth.

There is also another concept that can help us think about the phenomenon of state acquisition of teams: “sportswashing.” According to César Jiménez-Martínez and Michael Skey, sportswashing typically occurs when a country hosts a sporting event, where “such sporting mega-events operate as a means to launder a national government’s global image and reputation—even to the extent that adversarial countries will be prepared to engage with them.”15 Jiménez-Martínezand Skey go on to note that, “In other words, concerns, controversies and accusations are left aside and sports takes centre stage. With very few exceptions, nobody wants to be the party pooper.”16

Sportwashing has become increasingly common across the sporting world and sporting governing bodies have been more than happy to comply. Non-democratic states across the Middle East and post-Soviet Bloc have been keen to host to tennis tournaments, such as the Qatar ExxonMobil Open; Formula One racing, such as the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix; the 2022 World Cup in Qatar; and the European Games (2019) in Minsk, Belarus. More recently, China and Russia have hosted Summer and Winter Olympics to show their countries in a more positive light, despite the negative effect on the citizens when Olympic facilities are constructed.17

Sportwashing achieves—or is intended to secure—a major political win for governments while simultaneously insulating them against political criticism on the grounds that “sports and politics don’t mix.”18 For instance, even though China is likely committing genocide against its Uighur minority,19 the International Olympic Committee is intent on remaining silent about China’s human rights abuses before the 2022 Winter Olympics.20 That China is still able to host the Olympics signifies the normalization of a country engaged in some of the most heinous human rights abuses possible. For Saudi Arabia, the purchase of Newcastle United is only a larger part of a reform campaign referred to as “Vision 2030” that attempts to shape, and in some cases rehab, the image of Saudi Arabia. Vision 2030 includes a major investment campaign by Saudi Arabia in culture, entertainment, and sport. It is through this program that Saudi Arabia has recruited high-profile celebrities to perform in the country, such as Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, and 50 Cent, as well as host sporting events in golf, wrestling, and racing.21 When Saudi Arabia, and MBS, are allowed to host events or acquire prominent clubs, it is an implicit endorsement of their country—and by extension, their leader—warts and all.

That Premier League club-ownership is a form of tacit endorsement follows more clearly from the fact that the Premier League is supposed to have an “Owners’ and Directors’ Test” that prohibits club ownership due to “criminal convictions for a wide range of offences, a ban by a sporting or professional body, or breaches of certain key football regulations, such as match-fixing.”22 Interestingly, Newcastle began their acquisition attempt in 2020, and this clause held up the purchase for two years. However, the areas of concern were not due to any due diligence vis-à-vis human rights or humanitarian law. Instead, it was because a Saudi Arabian television station was pirating sports events licensed by beIN, a Qatari broadcaster, and showing them on its “own” channel, bout.23 That no international body can effectively convict MBS of crimes—given that any criminal referrals would require P5 support—shows the importance of due diligence by individuals and organizations when deciding whether to engage with MBS-controlled entities.

 

What’s a Fan to Do?

 

How seriously should we worry about such acquisitions? From a practical standpoint, the effectiveness of moral laundering and sportwashing is unclear. It depends on the answers to several empirical questions, since the gains stemming from sports ownership would be increasingly attractive to authoritarian regimes as a tool in the despot’s handbook. For instance, we should ask:

  • First, what effect has ownership of a club—such as PSG and Manchester City—had on the relationship between the acquiring state and the local government? Are governments less likely to criticize these owner-states because of the significant investments they are making in clubs? Already, Saudi Arabia exercises a remarkable degree of influence in the U.K. because of the country’s oil dependency and the role played by Saudi Arabia in its foreign policy agenda. For instance, despite protests by civil society and members of the Labour Party aimed at Saudi Arabia because of its indiscriminate bombing of civilians and use of banned cluster munitions, the U.K. has sold at least £9 billion in arms to the Saudi Arabian government since it began bombing Yemen in 2015. So, it is unclear just how much more support the UK could provide Saudi Arabia beyond ensuring present support continues.
  • Second, what effect does the acquisition of a sports team have on the public’s view of these states? And then, closely related to the first, what effect does this then have on the political representatives’ views in consideration? For instance, is a PSG fan less inclined than a non-PSG to boycott the 2022 World Cup in Qatar over Qatar’s stance on homosexuality and treatment of migrant workers?
  • Third, although it is a counterfactual, to what extent does sport diplomacy inhibit the improvement of human rights in countries such as these? Does sport provide a way of refocusing the foreign public’s imagination away from bad things and onto the good? Does the image boost a club-owning state receives from their affiliation with a team make it harder for activists to achieve political gains?

One’s answers to these questions raise further questions for those of us who are fans of the sport and/or of the club (or players, should they consider these issues): should a Newcastle United fan continue supporting his team? Does supporting a team signify an endorsement of the owners, especially when one’s fandom preceded the ownership change? Can someone in good conscience continue to watch the Premier League when its commitment to moral fitness—via the Owner’s and Director’s Test—is so empty?

A cynic may respond to these concerns by pointing out that, in the first place, citizens of the U.K. (or United States, as I am) have no moral ground to criticize other states. Our own governments have engaged—and continue to do so—in unjust actions and yet we continue to pay taxes and otherwise support our public institutions. Further, criticizing Saudi Arabia alone for its activities in Yemen leaves out the U.K. and U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, whose planes and munitions were provided by both countries.24 Additionally, there may even have been some involvement by the British Foreign Office in the Newcastle United takeover. According to the BBC, The British Foreign Office discussed the proposed sale with Premier League officials on two occasions in 2020. Though specific details have not been provided,  the reporting suggests that they helped promote the deal.25 One could continue to object to the fact that the negative focus on Middle Eastern states reflects another version of anti-Islamic sentiment—since there is much less criticism of Chelsea FC’s owner Roman Abramovich, despite his well-known friendship and affiliations with Vladimir Putin.26 In sum, the cynic tells us that sports are sports, and that we should leave politics out of it, lest we ignore the plank in our own eye.

The cynic’s challenge is a poignant one, and it speaks to the challenges of living justly in a world in which so much is based on, and continues to rely upon, widespread historical injustices, exploitation, and human rights abuses. For instance, advocating a boycott of the 2022 Olympics by Americans seems hypocritical if at the same time we happily wear our Nike running shoes made in the same facilities as those in Uighur forced-work camps.27 Boycotting Newcastle United likewise feels hypocritical if we continue to run our cars on gasoline that is expanding PIF’s balance and extending MBS’s power. Yet the fact that we often fail to do the right thing or that we are hypocrites does not change the fact that we have a moral obligation not to participate in institutions that actively cause harm to others.28 How we decide which activities to participate in (or opt out of) and which groups to belong to is the task of all individuals seeking to live an ethical life, and it is often an idiosyncratic one: that is, when to decide what one can and cannot do in good conscience or in keeping with one’s character. We very well may have to take certain jobs or reside in certain countries, but there is, for most of us, an ethical line that we draw for ourselves and cannot cross, even if our response has little impact on the wider world.

But we are also political animals, ones that can act cooperatively and make decisions as a group that are more impactful, even if sometimes symbolic. For those of us unhappy with the actions of our governments, and depending on the political nature of our state, we have obligations and formal opportunities to push for reforms. Our efforts may seem doomed from the start, but many reform campaigns do ultimately succeed. So, our response to the cynic should be action: it should be to advocate for a more just government and to admit when our government falls short.

In the case of a sports team, the question then is whether the ownership of a particular club crosses some line that ought not be crossed. Whether this is so depends, in part, on whether the ownership furthers the interests of someone whose interests ought not be furthered, a consequentialist consideration that underlies the worries of sportswashing and moral laundering. Regardless of the answers to these empirical questions, it also matters whether we can in good conscience continue to belong—as much as a fan can be said to belong—to a “club.”

For me, the response to Newcastle’s acquisition has been easy: to turn off the Premier League. Admittedly, this is an easier answer to give because despite enjoying it, I am not a die-hard soccer fan. What matters more to me is not providing any endorsement of a leader that wages a war against civilians and responds so horribly to any criticism. I ought not, and collectively we should not, allow MBS to participate in institutions that legitimize his wide-spread human rights deprivations. Still, could I watch if I simply root against Newcastle United (or Manchester City and PSG for that matter)? Maybe, but to me the approval of the sale by the Premier League itself is one that stinks of rot, showing the true value-commitments of the league, and one to which I do not want to align myself.

Buying teams and hosting sporting events is a growing form of statecraft that may translate deep reserves of state money into more subtle forms of soft power by going after activities with strong affective ties. Fans are obligated to resist becoming unwitting pawns in such a game, which requires thinking more deeply about what it means to be a fan, as well as how fandom can be an ethical choice as well. Without skepticism from fans qua individuals, it is unlikely that any institutions—whether governmental or sports governing bodies, problematic as they are—can effectively counter the moral laundering taking place, or have the motivation do to so, even if we as fans have a lower-profile platform than the players in “Ted Lasso.”


—Drew Thompson

Drew Thompson received his PhD in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago. He writes on migration and sovereignty.

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  1. Rory Smith, “Saudi Arabia, Newcastle and Soccer’s Worship of Money,” New York Times, October 8, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/08/sports/soccer/newcastle-saudi-arabia-premier-league.html
  2. Tom Kershaw, “Newcastle supporters 97% in favour of takeover despite concerns over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record,” The Independent, April 25, 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/newcastle-takeover-supporters-premier-league-saudi-arabia-a9483621.html
  3. Here, I refer to the fact that Saudi Arabia’s coffers have been filled by selling oil from one of the world’s largest oil reserves. While this fact is morally dubious, it shouldn’t be intended to single out exclusively an oil producer for moral blame when so much of the world participates in an oil-based global economy.
  4. Nick Hopkins and Stephanie Kirchgaessner, “‘Credible evidence’ Saudi Crown Prince Liable for Khashoggi Killing- UN Report,” The Guardian, June 19, 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/19/jamal-khashoggi-killing-saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-evidence-un-report; , Office of the Director Of National Intelligence, “Assessing the Saudi Government’s Role in the Killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” February 11, 2021. Accessed at https://us.cnn.com/2021/02/26/politics/read-unclassified-report-on-jk/index.html
  5. Stephanie Kirchgaessner, “Top Saudi official issued death threat against UN’s Khashoggi investigator,” The Guardian, March 23, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/23/top-saudi-official-issued-death-threat-against-uns-khashoggi-investigator.
  6. Reports without Borers ranks Saudi Arabia 170thin the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. “Saudi Arabia,” Reports without Borders, https://rsf.org/en/saudi-arabia.
  7. Ben Hubbard, David D. Kirkpatrick, Kate Kelly and Mark Mazzetti, “Saudis Said to Use Coercion and Abuse to Seize Billions,” The New York Times, March 11, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/11/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-corruption-mohammed-bin-salman.html.
  8. “Saudi Arabia: Events of 2019,” Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/saudi-arabia.
  9. Alex Ward, ““It is not a blockade”: US says Saudi Arabia Isn’t to Blame for Yemen’s Fuel Shortage,” Vox.com, April 14, 2021, https://www.vox.com/2021/4/14/22381459/yemen-blockade-saudi-arabia-biden-cnn.
  10. Barney Ronay, “Sportwswashing and the gangled web of Europe’s biggest clubs,” The Guardian, February 15, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2019/feb/15/sportswashing-europes-biggest-clubs-champions-league-owners-sponsors-uefa; Jamie Doward, “Amnesty criticises Manchester City over ‘sportswashing,’”, The Guardian, November 11, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/law/2018/nov/11/manchester-city-owners-accused-sportswashing-gulf-image.
  11. Branko Milanovic, Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World (Cambridge: The Belkin Press of Harvard University Press, 2019), 169-170.
  12. Stephanie Kirchgaessner, “Revealed: Newcastle chairman’s links to Saudi ‘anti-corruption’ drive,” The Guardian, October 16, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/16/revealed-newcastle-chairmans-links-to-saudi-anti-corruption-drive.
  13. PSG is majority-owned by the Qatar Investment Authority and Manchester City by Abu Dhabi United Group.
  14. Steve Robson, “The huge impact of Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi revolution on Manchester – what we have won, and lost,” Manchester Evening News, May 29, 2021, https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/man-city-champions-league-final-20494480.
  15. César Jiménez-Martínezand Michael Skey,“How repressive states and governments use ‘sportswashing’ to remove stains on their reputation,” The Conversation, July 25, 2018. https://theconversation.com/how-repressive-states-and-governments-use-sportswashing-to-remove-stains-on-their-reputation-100395.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Julian Borger, “Olympics blamed for forcible removal of 2m over 20 years,” The Guardian, June 5, 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/jun/06/sport.china; Human Rights Watch, “Russia’s Olympian Abuses,” https://www.hrw.org/video-photos/interactive/2013/04/08/russias-olympian-abuses.
  18. Cf. Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, The Olympic Games: A Critical Approach (Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited, 2020). Whether sportswashing actually does achieve its desired results is controversial. Damien Philipps has suggested that this might all result in the Streisand Effect—that is, hosting a high-profile event leads to greater scrutiny of a country’s record.  Damien Phillips, “Why Europe should stop worrying about ‘sportswashing,’ EUObserver, May 6, 2021. https://euobserver.com/opinion/151769.
  19. Jesus Jiménez, “U.S. Holocaust Museum Says China ‘May Be Committing Genocide’ Against Uyghurs,” November 9, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/09/world/asia/us-holocaust-museum-china-uyghurs-report.html.
  20. Rachel Pannett, “Olympic officials won’t push China on human rights ahead of Beijing Games, as calls for boycott grow louder,” The Washington Post, October 14, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/2021/10/14/beijing-winter-olympics-ioc-china.
  21. Human Rights Watch, “Saudi Arabia: ‘Image Laundering’ Conceals Abuses,” October 2, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/02/saudi-arabia-image-laundering-conceals-abuses.
  22. “What is the Owners’ and Directors’ Test? The Premier League, September 16, 2016, https://www.premierleague.com/news/102375. The League claims that MBS is not actually the owner of the team and there are ‘legal’ barriers to his ownership. However, MBS is the chairman of PIF.
  23. Tariq Panja, “Major Obstacle Removed in Saudi Bid for Premier League Team,” October 6, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/06/sports/soccer/saudi-arabia-newcastle-united.html.
  24. “UK Arms to Saudi Arabia,” Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT),” September 28, 2021, https://caat.org.uk/homepage/stop-arming-saudi-arabia/uk-arms-to-saudi-arabia/.
  25. Colin George and Kate Whannel, “Newcastle United: UK blocks details of Premier League talks to protect Saudi relations,” BBC News October 8, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-58840820.
  26. Legal proceedings are currently ongoing between Roman Abramovich and journalist Catherine Belton over her accusations that Abramovich bought Chelsea on behalf of Vladimir Putin. Whether he did or not, they are friends. Guy Faulconbridge, “Russia’s Abramovich denies buying Chelsea for Putin, court hears,” Reuters, July 28, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/russian-billionaires-vs-british-writer-court-battle-begins-over-putin-book-2021-07-27.
  27. Anna Fifield, “China Compels Uighurs to work in shoe factory that supplies Nike,” The Washington Post, February 29, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/china-compels-uighurs-to-work-in-shoe-factory-that-supplies-nike/2020/02/28/ebddf5f4-57b2-11ea-8efd-0f904bdd8057_story.html. Although Nike has denied these claims, they have lobbied against a bill that would ban importing goods made by Uighur forced labor. Ana Swanson, “Nike and Coca-Cola Lobby Against Xinjiang Forced Labor Bill,” The New York Times, November 29, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/29/business/economy/nike-coca-cola-xinjiang-forced-labor-bill.html.
  28. On his institutional understanding of human rights, Thomas Pogge argues that we have a duty to avoid imposing institutions upon others that result in human rights deprivations. See Chapter Two, “How Should Human Rights be Conceived,” in Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights (Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002), 52-70.

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