Riyadh upon Tyne
What it Means for MBS to Buy an English Football Team
After an unintentionally long hiatus, the Bloom Briefing returns, future frequency TBA. This week’s edition contains ruminations on the politics of globalized sports as well as links to some great writing.
The state of Saudi Arabia purchased a football club this week. Newcastle United became the latest acquisition of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). Although the roughly £300 million ($400 million) investment isn’t quite as large as the Fund’s minority holdings in some other major entities (Boeing, Facebook, Citigroup, Uber), the investment means the PIF will now be in charge of running a Premier League football team.
Newcastle United have been mismanaged for years by Mike Ashley, a penny-wise, pound-foolish sports apparel retail executive. The fans have publicly protested his ownership for years, and perhaps they have finally gotten their wish. Newcastle may now have the same investment of petrodollars as Chelsea and Manchester City. Fans certainly weren’t equivocating about the morality of the situation when the takeover was announced, gathering outside the stadium to unironically chant, “we’ve got our club back.”
For the rest of us not blinded by the loyalty of partisanship, it does bear lingering on the social repercussions of the takeover and what it says, in the words of Guardian columnist Barney Ronay, about our “faux morality.”
In this light the comparison with Ashley, the assumption that Newcastle has finally found its prince, seems to involve a degree of cognitive dissonance. Infuriating tracksuit vendor v blood-stained dictatorship. Zero-hours sport-shop contracts v beheading 37 people in a single day. Hiring Dennis Wise v bombing Yemen. Is it really obvious that one of these – the beheading one – is so much more desirable than the other?
The Newcastle fans are saying, in effect, “money is power and we’ve got more of it now.” In the context of sports ownership, perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. Roman Abramovich (Chelsea), Joel, Bryan, and Avram Glazer (Manchester United), Sheikh Mansour (Manchester City), Stan Kroenke (Arsenal), even John Henry (of my beloved Liverpool). These aren’t exactly a who’s who of the world’s most upstanding people. In this context, the Trump-supporting American billionaire tax-cheats seem like huggable children’s book heroes.
But also, none of this unsavory cast of characters has ordered the assassination and dismemberment of a journalist or overseen the mass execution of 37 people or started a proxy war responsible for the deaths of millions of people. Is this some sort of crossing of a red line? Or are we dealing just in shades of gray?
The last few years have seemed to make questions like these harder to answer. Globalization had for some time been making global challenges local. “Think global, act local” became something of a slogan for how the individual should respond. There was always an inherent tension in the latter part of that suggestion. “Acting local” is great, except when it’s not. Everyone seemed very committed to the dictum of “never again” issued (again) after the Rwandan genocide, but subsequent genocides in Sudan, Myanmar, Syria, and Xinjiang have proceeded largely unhindered.
What’s a Newcastle fan to do? Thinking globally would mean a clear-eyed view of the atrocities committed by the team’s new owner. Acting locally would mean what, exactly? Ignoring the atrocities? Attempting to reject the new ownership group? Setting up a vigil for Jamal Khashoggi inside the stadium? Being grateful Saudi petrodollars are being spent on players for your team rather than Sunderland’s?
Globalization in football produces an even greater paradox. The identity of the team is tied to a particular place in a particular region of a particular country. It has a particular and a contingent history in that place. But there is far more money today in attracting fans in China or Brazil or, yes, Saudi Arabia than there is in appeasing the provincial desires of the locals who have supported the team for generations. In early 2020, Wolverhampton Wanderers estimated that they had five times more fans in Mexico than in England.
The inexorable globalization of provincial games is an outcome of capitalism at its most naked. The best football, American football, baseball, and basketball are shown around the world. The US is a bigger market and so American sports haven’t been pushed internationally to quite the extent of the Premier League, but even here, the leagues’ globalization has already created a similar kind of conflict.
When the NBA shutdown criticism of the Chinese genocide of the Uyghur population, Republicans, some of them practically gleeful, pointed out the hypocrisy of continuing to allow the players to criticize various features of American society. Of course, different markets, different rules. You want to be on TV and the internet in China? Don’t criticize the state. Were Republicans suggesting that the NBA should lose billions of dollars in the Chinese market by taking a moral stand? Or were they suggesting that sports leagues clamp down on players criticizing them? Given the Party’s ongoing flirtation with authoritarianism, one has to wonder about the latter.
Here, though, there is still enough respect for the semblance of individual liberties to make implementing such prohibitions costly. Tell players they can’t speak freely, and some fans will stop watching. Though, of course, this is not so costly that the NFL didn’t eat that cost to ban players from kneeling for the national anthem. The clear lesson from both the NBA and NFL incidents is that universal values are universal… until they become too expensive.
In this light, it becomes clear that global capitalism poses a much greater threat to individual liberties than whatever neo-Marxism conservatives think is being taught in Sociology, 101 courses. As Ronay ponders, will Newcastle United, whose new overlords punish homosexuality with public whippings, still support the Rainbow Laces Campaign? What of efforts to reduce gender-based violence and make stadiums safe for women? Maybe the Premier League is only serious about these efforts until you have several-hundred-million pounds to invest.
Sports owners have always played by a separate set of rules from everyone else, though. As Jemele Hill wrote about the owners’ response to the racial justice protests in the NFL several years ago:
Why is [it] that Glazer’s financial support of Trump isn’t considered as detrimental to the league’s bottom line as the protests…? The political motives of players always are under scrutiny. The owners? Almost never. We have two sets of rules here, one for owners and one for players. Players who speak up about important societal issues or engage in the politics are often told to just concentrate on sports, as if they aren’t allowed an identity beyond the sport they play. As if someone else has the right to tell them when they can behave as citizens of this country… The only people allowed to express political views are the owners.
As much as we might want to believe that sports teams have some commitment to the people in their communities, global capitalism has rendered this commitment tenuous at best. American sports leagues justify teams moving cities altogether with the explanation that the owners just couldn’t make enough money where they were. The Premier League sanctions sales of franchises to the shadiest of world leaders under the promise that this will make the product better.
Of course, this is only true so long as we uncouple the product from any moral reasoning. Perhaps the Premier League is right. Many Newcastle fans seem ready to embrace their new prince. They just better not embrace him too enthusiastically, lest they find the result is a public whipping.
Every so often, a writer gets a perfect assignment, a piece where local knowledge proves invaluable to relaying the grist of life to the reader. This week, the writer was Roberto José Andrade Franco, and the subject matter was El Paso native and 18-year-old soccer prodigy Ricardo Pepi. If you read one thing this week, make it this.
In the New York Times Magazine, Robert Kolker wrote “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” The pieces takes us deep in the interpersonal drama of two aspiring writers. It also serves as something of a Rorschach test for the reader. Which of the characters is the worse art friend? Give it a read here.
A small army of journalists at the Washington Post has written up a plethora of articles on the Pandora Papers. The papers expose the chicanery (much of it legal) the world’s wealthy individuals go through to avoid paying taxes. Links to all the Washington Post pieces can be found here.
How much of a role do team owners actually have over the team and the league? The case of NBA owners donating to trump is an interesting one because, despite the conservative beliefs of owners, the league itself is pretty liberal. NFL owners seem to be more conservative, but NFL players also seem to be more conservative. I'm not disputing this is potentially an issue, but I think it's more complicated than owner's values = teams values.