Newcastle United, The Premier League & The Moral Vacuum

by | Apr 20, 2020

Perhaps we just have to resign ourselves to the likelihood that we now live in an age in which morals and scruples are simply a matter of convenience that can be bent out of shape according to our whims and desires. Even if we allow ourselves the grim realisation that Premier League football is a moral vacuum, a cesspit in which nobody is interested in anything but getting what they want, as quickly as they can get it, and with no concerns for the ethics of anything, to see it spelt it out in such grimly stark words still has the capacity to make the stomach turn. From this article, published on the Guardian’s website yesterday morning, on the now imminent Saudi takeover of Newcastle United:

Many people have decried the potential takeover but, as supporters, we’re allowed to be glad that Mike Ashley is going while recognising that our club’s money will, in part, stem from a regime that’s fallen foul of human rights atrocities.

It may be terrible to say, but having boundless sums of money really is the nature of the beast now; if you don’t like foreign investment having an influence in football then the elite game is not for you. And our club has been deprived of any sort of investment or ambition for far too long.

As spoken by Jacque Talbot, a “freelance journalist and writer for the fanzine True Faith.”

So, let’s get a few things straight, before moving onto anything else. Mike Ashley is a dreadful human being, a financial vulture who picks at the bones of struggling companies in order to enrich himself. And he has debased Newcastle United to the extent that supporters of that club are now quite happy to be publicly quoted as supporters of a regime that murders, tortures, and persecutes its own people, so long as there is money to be spent on paying for better footballers. But Newcastle are hardly alone in this. Sharing gate receipts was ended to entrench inequality. The Premier League itself was created to entrench inequality. Professional football has always had a stench about it, though why this is something we should just accept unquestioningly and in perpetuity is seldom addressed.

Let’s be absolutely clear, here. I have no personal bone saw to grind with Newcastle United. They’re just another football club to me, like, I don’t know, Everton, Aston Villa, or Sunderland. And if whataboutery turns out to be the theme of the day, well, I don’t hold the owners of Manchester City or Chelsea – it’s a list that could go on – in particularly high esteem either, or many of the others, really. Hell, after their shenanigans over furloughing their lower paid staff a couple of weeks ago, I’m not particularly fond of the owners of the club that I nominally follow, Tottenham Hotspur, and haven’t been for some considerable time. Had they not reversed their decision over that after a PR whirlwind that they fully deserved, I had already decided to pull that plug, however tiny a drop in the ocean that might have been. I may do yet. It’s difficult to say how severely that tie has been severed when there’s no football being played whatsoever. But I’m not morally superior to anyone. They’re still in my heart, because that’s where they live. My heart sincerely goes out to those Newcastle United supporters who are tormented by a sale that was always going to be beyond their control.

So no, this isn’t an agenda against your club, and I’m not mentioning anyone specific by name who isn’t proud enough of what they think to have had it published in a national newspaper. and spare me your witless clichés about “virtue signalling”, or other phrases lifted from the American far-right, while we’re about it. It makes you sound like a parrot, only without the beautifully coloured plumage. Because this takeover is another level to anything we’ve seen before in this country (yes, quite possibly even Manchester City, and even if it isn’t, then so what?), and if you’re uncritically thinking that this is A Good Thing because you’ve “suffered” enough as a football supporter, let’s take a brief review of what “suffering” can also look like, courtesy of Human Rights Watch’s 2019 World Report:

Yemen Airstrikes and Blockade

As the leader of the coalition that began military operations against Houthi forces in Yemen on March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law. As of August, at least 6,592 civilians had been killed and 10,471 wounded, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), although the actual civilian casualty count is likely much higher. The majority of these casualties were a result of coalition airstrikes.

Since March 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented about 90 apparently unlawful attacks by the coalition that have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes. An April coalition attack on a wedding killed 22 people and wounded more than 50. An August attack on a bus killed and wounded dozens of children. Saudi commanders face possible criminal liability for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility.

Freedoms of Expression, Association, and Belief

Saudi authorities in 2018 intensified a coordinated crackdown on dissidents, human rights activists, and independent clerics.

On May 15, 2018, just weeks before the Saudi authorities lifted the ban on women driving on June 24, authorities launched arrests of prominent women’s rights activists and accused several of them of grave crimes like treason that appear to be directly related to their activism. By November at least nine women remain detained without charge, though some anticipated charges could carry prison terms of up to 20 years. Human rights organizations reported in November that Saudi interrogators tortured at least four of the women, including by administering electric shocks, whipping the women on their thighs, and forcible hugging and kissing. Saudi prosecutors escalated their longstanding campaign against dissidents in 2018 by seeking the death penalty against detainees on charges that related to nothing more than peaceful activism and dissent.

Criminal Justice

Saudi Arabia applies Sharia as its national law. There is no formal penal code, but the government has passed some laws and regulations that subject certain broadly-defined offenses to criminal penalties. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly-worded regulations, however, judges and prosecutors can convict people on a wide range of offenses under broad, catch-all charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.” Detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest.

Judges routinely sentence defendants to floggings of hundreds of lashes. Children can be tried for capital crimes and sentenced as adults if they show physical signs of puberty. During 2018, authorities continued to detain arrested suspects for months, even years, without judicial review or prosecution. Saudi Arabia’s online prisoner database revealed in May that authorities were holding 2,305 individuals who are under investigation for more than six months without referring them to a judge, including 251 for over three years.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

Women in Saudi Arabia face formal and informal barriers when attempting to make decisions or take action without the presence or consent of a male relative. In 2018, Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remained intact despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian—usually a husband, father, brother, or son—to travel abroad, obtain a passport, marry, or be discharged from prison. They may be required to provide guardian consent to work or access healthcare.

Saudi authorities opened to women some sectors of work that were previously closed such as air traffic control, passport control, and as investigators in the public prosecution. In June, Saudi Arabia passed a law on sexual harassment with a sentence for offenders of up to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to 100,000 Saudi riyals (US$26,666), which can be increased in certain circumstances. However, the law also provides that anyone who falsely reported a crime of harassment or falsely claimed to have been a victim shall be sentenced to the same punishment that they alleged took place.

Migrant Workers

Over 12 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical, and service jobs in Saudi Arabia, constituting more than eighty percent of the private sector workforce, though government efforts to nationalize the workforce in addition to the imposition of a monthly tax on foreign workers’ dependents in mid-2017 led to an exodus of at least 667,000 migrant workers between January 2017 and July 2018.

Some migrant workers suffer abuses and exploitation, sometimes amounting to conditions of forced labor. The kafala (visa sponsorship) system ties migrant workers’ residency permits to “sponsoring” employers, whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or leave the country under normal circumstances. Some employers confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will. Saudi Arabia also imposes an exit visa requirement, forcing migrant workers to obtain permission from their employer to leave the country.

Workers who leave their employer without their consent can be charged with “absconding” and face imprisonment and deportation. Domestic workers, predominantly women, faced a range of abuses including overwork, forced confinement, non-payment of wages, food deprivation, and psychological, physical, and sexual abuse without the authorities holding their employers to account.

Perhaps this isn’t enough. Perhaps this is all a bit distant for some people to be able to take in. In that case, perhaps a freelance journalist might pay a little more attention to this:

The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi

Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi dissident, journalist for The Washington Post, and former general manager and editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel. On the 2nd of October 2018, he was lured to the consulate building on the pretext of providing him papers for his upcoming wedding. Once inside, Khashoggi was ambushed, suffocated, and dismembered by a 15-member squad of Saudi assassins using a bone saw. Khashoggi’s final moments are captured in audio recordings, transcripts of which were subsequently made public.

The subsequent investigation concluded that Khashoggi had been strangled as soon as he entered the consulate building, and that his body was dismembered and disposed of. Turkish investigators, as well as investigations by the New York Times, concluded that some of the fifteen members of the Saudi hit team were closely connected to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and that the team had traveled to Istanbul specifically to commit the murder.

The Saudi government engaged in an extensive effort to cover-up the killing, including destroying evidence. After repeatedly shifting its account of what happened to Khashoggi in the days following the killing, the Saudi government admitted that Khashoggi had been killed in a premeditated murder, but denied that the killing took place on the orders of bin Salman, who said he accepted responsibility for the killing “because it happened under my watch” but asserted that he did not order it. Turkish officials released an audio recording of Khashoggi’s killing that they alleged contained evidence that Khashoggi had been assassinated on the orders of Mohammed bin Salman.

For the record, I don’t believe that Newcastle United supporters should stop supporting the club and go to watch Sunderland instead. I do not, however, believe that “support” for “the club” should mean unequivocable “support” for the owners, no matter how much money they pump into it. To love somebody or something doesn’t mean to lower one’s own ethical standards. It doesn’t mean to be fawningly uncritical of the owners of a football club. It doesn’t mean to effectively become an unpaid member of the PR arm of a despotic government. And if your argument is that you’ve “suffered enough” over a pastime to contort your own moral spectrum to the degree that some seem prepared to, it probably means that you didn’t have much of one to start with.

Even within the relatively vacuous world of professional football, the notion that Newcastle United supporters have “suffered” more than most doesn’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. True enough, the club underperformed over the time that Mike Ashley was its owner, considering its ability to pull in 50,000 crowds and the like. Having said that, though, Newcastle have spent two seasons in the last twenty-six outside the Premier League, and have reached cup finals in that time as well. There are plenty of clubs that have slipped out of the Premier League never to return, or who have lost their grounds, or worse. Perhaps the likes of Talbot should talk to the supporters of Bury, Coventry City, or the old Wimbledon, to name but three, about the nature of what “suffering” might mean the context of supporting a football club.

There is no contradiction in being happy to see the back of Mike Ashley and being troubled or conflicted at the identity of the new owners, and perhaps the best that can be said about all of this is that the game at this level is now so disconnected from anything like a moral compass that it’s almost pointless to think about it. This, however, doesn’t mean that, at a basic human level, anybody should merely dismiss or seek to diminish what has been done by the soon-to-be owners of this club. Professional football may well be a moral black hole. That doesn’t mean that the supporters of football clubs have to be, as well, and neither should we have to be.

None of this should let those running the Premier League off the hook, either. It is frankly absurd that the Owners & Directors Test currently asks whether a prospective club owner has been convicted of fraud, but doesn’t ask whether they murder journalists and dismember them with a bone saw. It shouldn’t seem faintly absurd to believe that the governing body of a sport should be able to identify that a murderous government shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the ownership of one of our football clubs.

Perhaps this is where Talbot has it right. Perhaps if you have any sort of moral compass, the Premier League isn’t the place for you. It seems like a strange argument to make, though. This is, and has always been a cesspit, and if you believe in cleaning it up in any way whatsoever rather than making that smell of shit even worse than it is, you don’t belong here.

Football is so in hock to money that it will tolerate just about anything in order to get more of it. Ever was it thus. Corruption has been a part of the game for so long as money has been involved in it, going all the way back to the introduction of professionalism in 1885 and before. Money has always bought success, and supporters of all clubs have been surprisingly willing to tolerate the scales being tipped drastically in favour of the richest, even though it’s to the detriment of so many.

Sportswashing is a real phenomenon, though, and its success can be gauged by the very fact that the Saudis – who aren’t stupid and will already be fully aware of the amount of the negative publicity that they get every single day – are prepared to get involved in the Premier League in the first place. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should make it easy or comfortable for them. We should embarrass them at every available opportunity, because they deserve to be embarrassed. And yes, football supporters are put into an invidious position by all of this, but that doesn’t mean that anyone should or let them off the hook, either.

Those who wish to are free to publicly admit the absence of their moral compass, but they shouldn’t expect congratulating for doing so. Claiming honesty is no shortcut to moral superiority. Newcastle supporters are free to enjoy all the trophies that their newly-found largesse may bring them and to not give a shit what anyone else thinks of them, but there will be costs to these trophies, including to the reputation of those who serve as stooges to this particular government. At least they won’t involve the use of bone saws.