With Eddie Howe’s relentless-high-pressing-fuck-the-ESL-Six-no-ceiling Mags on the inexorable rise, there’s one giant-sized issue that will never go away. In fact, like a body buried beneath the floorboards – forgive the grisly (in)appropriateness of the metaphor – it only gains in odour as the sun shines ever more brightly. Yep, I’m afraid we really are going to have to talk about the S-word.
Which is not easy, because if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s the tedious ubiquity of the term “sports-washing”.
A word entirely hollowed out of meaning by its now compulsory and knee-jerk usage as a lazy pejorative slur by both rival fans and click-hungry journalists alike.
But one year on from the takeover and with a (hitherto) small group of fans organising on social media to protest publicly under the banner “NUFC fans against Sportwashing”, this is as good a time as any for a little sober reflection on where we stand. After all, with every three points we gain and every human rights atrocity the Saudi regime commits, the noise is only going to grow louder, even if you understandably choose to take the view that those two phenomena are entirely unrelated.
Maybe it’s worth starting by asking what exactly “sports-washing” is and where the term came from.
Its origins lie in the concept of “green-washing”, the practice of companies presenting their green credentials for reputational benefit while continuing to undertake environmental damage in their real day-to-day business.
In turn, of course, that term is a self-conscious play on the idea of “white-washing”, carrying the idea of artificially painting over and obscuring a less pleasant underlying reality.
In the last five years, Amnesty and other groups have coined the term “sports-washing” for what they see as the parallel practice of reputational white-washing through sport. And while the term might be new, the phenomenon is not.
Throughout the Cold War, for example, the Olympic Games acted as one long, extended exercise in geo-political sports-washing through the soft power of international sport. And that’s before we even get to the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
But here’s the nub of it. If the aim of sports-washing is to wipe away reputational damage, then PIF’s investment in our club seems on the surface to have singularly failed. There’s never been greater awareness of the human rights record of the Saudi regime than now.
Of the 124 death sentences carried out so far this year, of the 81 mass executions on a single day, of the 8 minors currently facing state-mandated death. Of the appalling extent of civilian deaths in the Yemen conflict. Of the lengthy incarceration of a Leeds student for daring to be critical on social media. Of the direct responsibility born by the head of our majority shareholder for the targeted assassination of a journalist on foreign soil.
At the same time, what’s been striking in the last couple of weeks is how the anniversary of our Faustian pact has actually enabled us to understand a little more clearly the intentions behind PIF’s investment and with it the actual purpose of this particular brand of “sports-washing”. And the evidence indicates the motivations behind the deal are rather more nuanced than the simplistic use of the term might suggest.
First, interviews with Yasser Al-Rumayyan have made clear this was primarily a financially driven investment, part of the strategy to diversify Saudi Arabia’s’ wealth away from its dependency on oil.
Indeed, other countries untroubled by human rights abuses, such as Norway, have comparable sovereign investment funds used to invest capital in order to yield returns to protect the country against the inevitable day when their oil resources run dry.
A £350m investment on an asset that could quickly be worth the £3.5bn paid for Chelsea is simply a sound investment.
Second, that rarest of beasts – a serious and genuinely investigative piece of journalism trying to shed light on the role of Newcastle United in Saudi Arabia (The Athletic) –demonstrated how Premier League football fits well into an agenda designed to engage the kingdom’s youthful population with its interest in both sport and western culture more generally.
As such, the investment is also part of the strategy of (very) limited social liberalisation that underpins Bin Salman’s Vision 2030.
In this latter sense, the audience for any attempt to sanitise the reputation of the regime is not the international community, but rather an internal and domestic one. And that domestic lens is perhaps one that should be used to assess the success or otherwise of the sports-washing project, not the dominant and lazily Western-centric perspective.
Not that this makes it any more palatable. Indeed, it should temper any naivety that somehow this strategy will lead to any meaningful liberalisation of civil society in Saudi Arabia. Those believing engagement with the West will accelerate a process towards “Western” conceptions of human rights reveal only their own ethnocentric bias. If anything, the last year has shown human rights abuses will only continue and perhaps even intensify.
As fans we are not responsible for those abuses. To suggest otherwise is absurd. But it’s also disingenuous to pretend we have no connection at all to those crimes. The fact we had no choice in accepting that connection does not mean it does not exist.
Like so many discussions in the modern media, both social and professional, the treatment of “sports-washing” is facile and deeply unhelpful. On both sides, it sustains an endless cycle of empty hysteria, faux outrage, and thin-skinned defensiveness that flatters neither our detractors nor great swathes of our own fan-base.
The world is messy and complicated, full of contradictions and compromises, and the tentacles of global capital and its dubious morality are inescapable. There are no easy answers.
But to dismiss every application of the notion of “sports-washing” as hypocritical or as evidence of a media “agenda” is to live in denial the problem exists at all. Like it or not, we have become a tool in the political strategy of an autocratic nation state.
And that’s something that should, in our quieter and more reflective moments, trouble us profoundly.
Ashley might be gone. Hope, pleasure, passion might be back. But it remains a well-intentioned delusion to suggest we truly have our club back in our hands.
Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731