The problem with Jordan Henderson is that he forgot Michael Jordan’s basic philosophy primer for sports stars. Asked to denounce a Republican senator using racist tropes in election ads, he refused. His reasoning? ‘Republicans buy sneakers too.’
Turns out homophobes offer amazingly lucrative football contracts too. So let that be a warning to any footballer contemplating a moral stance on anything any time soon.
Actually, The Last Dance provided more context to that famous quote. Michael Jordan explains that it was an off-the-cuff remark made to teammates.
His take was that he didn’t want to commit his name to something he didn’t properly understand and hadn’t had the time to study in depth. Which is actually an eminently sensible position and one Henderson is presumably rueing now, wishing he had such foresight.
Because the problem with Jordan Henderson runs through all of us and is encapsulated in #BeKind. It’s good to #BeKind even if the frequent exhortations to do so feel like a regression to a primary school assembly with a particularly earnest head teacher.
Jordan Henderson has been heavily criticised after speaking on the move to his Saudi Arabia
The former Liverpool captain left Anfield to join Saudi Arabian side Al-Ettifaq this summer on a reported wage of £700,000-a-week, but he insists the move was not financially motivated
But when do we stop #BeingKind? This is the philosophical cul de sac in which Henderson has ended up.
Reading his interview on Saudi Arabia, despite the car crash quotes – ‘I’ve worn the armband, I’ve worn the rainbow laces, I’ve gone above and beyond’ – I did not doubt his sincerity: it’s his naivety and self delusion that’s alarming, especially his belief that Saudi Arabia care a jot about his rainbow armband. They cared so much they blurred it out on his welcome video.
But he has grown up in an environment where everybody tells footballers they have huge influence (they do, up to a point) and that they can be changemakers (they can, but usually only superficially).
Not many of us are Tommie Smith or John Carlos. Most of us aren’t up for the type of sacrifice that puts us literally in the firing line, fist clenched as the anthem plays, your career possibly in ruins, your life’s work, an Olympic medal, perhaps under threat.
England weren’t even prepared to risk a yellow card for wearing an armband in Qatar and, before we judge, most of us wouldn’t jeopardise a cherished work project for a quick gesture of political solidarity.
As such, in the gilded world of professional footballers, Henderson probably genuinely believes he had done a lot. It’s really hard to despise his good intentions – I believe they were just that – just because he’s now got himself in a philosophical muddle.
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Al-Ettifaq also appointed fellow Liverpool icon Steven Gerrard as their manager this summer
NBA legend Michael Jordan once famously remarked ‘Republicans buy sneakers too’ when asked to denounce a Republican senator for using racist tropes in election advertisements
His issue is more than he has absorbed a level of moral debate more appropriate to primary school children than grown ups.
He perfectly encapsulates the limits of the tolerance as a moral code when he says that he would ‘wear the rainbow armband [but] if that disrespects their religion, then that’s not right either. Everybody should be respectful of religion and culture.’
There is no exit from this moral dead end. To our mindset – and this is the very Magna Carta, Reformation and Enlightenment and so a uniquely western European take on the world – you absolutely don’t have to respect a religion and culture.
You do of course have to remain peaceable and civil in your disagreement, as disrespect often disrespect morphs into violence. But #BeKind has never been enough as a moral code by which to live as it’s also a duty to be intolerant and disrespectful of certain cultures and views, a point I imagine is covered in very basic GCSE philosophy.
No-one expected Henderson to head a Gay Pride march in Riyadh. But we might reasonably have expected him, like Toni Kroos, to say he had the offer from Saudi but ‘the lack of human rights there’ prevented him going.
Henderson, who publicly and vocally advocated for LGBTQ + rights during his time at Anfield, has faced backlash from supporters as homosexuality is deemed a crime in Saudi Arabia
Al-Ettifaq appeared to blur out Henderson’s rainbow-coloured flag in his announcement video
But even within Kroos’ thinking, which is very more to my taste, there’s a contradiction. How much does he genuinely know about Saudi Arabia? The PR people working for Qatar, Saudi, UAE love to exploit this vulnerability amongst those raising questions about those Middle Eastern states.
If you’re thoughtful and aware of the wrongdoing done by western powers in their imperial pomp, riffing off that guilt is a rich seam to mine. Maybe you’re just another neo-imperialist or missionary, full of prejudice against an ancient culture, religion or nation?
Ultimately, PR agencies representing Middle Eastern states feed off post-modernism. Who are we to say what is right? Who is anyone? Because everything is just cultural relativism anyway, isn’t it?
But there’s the nub, the point at which an armband or rainbow laces won’t suffice. It isn’t neo-colonialism to say that imprisoning homosexuals is wrong. It isn’t imposing your western values to say that flying your henchmen over to Turkey to torture and murder an irritating journalist is wrong.
And it isn’t cultural prejudice or anti Arab racism that says not paying your workers and having rules that make it hard for them to get justice is wrong.
Toni Kroos decided to reject a move to Saudi Arabia because of ‘the lack of human rights there’
Henderson must learn that, ultimately, you have to draw a moral line in the sand somewhere
It is morality that says so. A morality forged over millennia. For all the nuance and debate we might have over the application of our beliefs – and alternative views are always available – ultimately you have to draw a moral line in the sand somewhere. Not everyone can be right.
And problem in taking such a stance is that it always involves upsetting someone. Michael Jordan knew that intuitively. You can’t #BeKind all the time. Sometimes protest involves painful decisions and it almost always involves upsetting people.
Henderson seems to have absorbed a Disney version of protest politics, in which his sacrifice involved a few boorish men booing him for taking the knee or wearing rainbow laces, but, when subjected to enough armbands, they eventually see the error of their ways and repent.
No one told him that challenging ideas involved genuine sacrifice and opprobrium. No one ever does when they’re handing out the armbands. After all, who’s up for that?
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