No ethical consumption in Newcastle: money, guilt and sportswashing

Oren Brown on the ethics of the Newcastle United takeover, capitalism, and whether fans should be condemned...

Oren Brown
16th October 2021
Image: Unsplash

Many Newcastle United fans found themselves facing a deeply challenging moral dilemma this week, myself included. Is it wrong to continue supporting the club given their newfound affiliation with the Saudi state? Is it fair to demonise those who remain fans? Is ‘no ethical consumption under capitalism’ a valid counterargument?

Last Thursday, a Saudi-led consortium purchased Newcastle United. The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, now majority shareholders of the team, have assured the Premier League that they are not controlled by the Saudi state. It is fair to be sceptical of this claim, given that the PIF’s chairman is the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

This affiliation brings about many concerns. Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian record is deeply distressing given the death-penalty retention, censorship of freedom of expression, and war crime issues raised by Amnesty International and UN experts. The buyout has naturally elicited accusations of sportswashing: “attempting to distract from [a nation’s] human rights record with prestigious sponsorship and hosting of events.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

So, if the wealth that funds Newcastle United originates from the Saudi state, a deep and difficult debate emerges for many who support the club. Buying merchandise and tickets might mean indirectly supporting the Saudi state. Furthermore, it is a common suggestion that supporting the club would render attempts of sportswashing successful, subtly granting acclaim and reverence to Saudi Arabia.

But given the PIF’s pre-established omnipresence in western society, it is almost impossible to avoid them. The PIF have held stakes in Live Nation, Boeing, Facebook, Citigroup, Disney, Bank of America, BP and Uber. Thus, it becomes difficult to absolve yourself from feeding into their portfolio. Moreover, any criticisms levied upon Saudi Arabia’s actions in war must in part fall on the UK’s shoulders, given their lucrative arms agreement.

Image: Pixabay

The notion of ‘no ethical consumption under capitalism' has been raised in left-wing circles a great deal in recent years. Its relevance extends to the consumption of entertainment, football included. Although the phrase has been echoed to the point of semantic satiation, it is still worth contemplating. The idea is often a counterargument to those who suggest being individually ‘better’ by altering your lifestyle in favour of ethical consumerism.

To be an ethical consumer is to attempt to fuel your lifestyle solely from non-exploitative sources while boycotting unethical sources. Those who champion the ‘no ethical consumption’ phrase would argue that this is impossible within a capitalist society; that no consumerist lifestyle can be fuelled without some proportion of indirect exploitation or alienation. 

Those who argue this point might suggest that the only way to be inherently ethical is to entirely dismantle modern capitalism, and that a dollar vote approach will never yield a truly ethical society. Simply ridding yourself of individual guilt by pursuing ethical consumerism is not changing the wider landscape. Not immediately, anyway.

Given the PIF’s pre-established omnipresence in western society, it is almost impossible to avoid them.

It’s a bit of a fatalistic approach, but it’s not inherently wrong. While adopting veganism, rigorously recycling and sourcing your food more carefully can be deeply rewarding, it is not immediately revolutionary. Likewise, boycotting a football club in ethical protest won't pull up any Saudi trees. The small steps people take towards a better society, unfortunately, do not slow the devastating machine to a halt. Steady change may follow, but dramatic change will take lifetimes. For some issues, lifetimes we may not have.

Even further to the point, a great deal of ‘ethical’ sources are simply less evil than the status quo – or potentially equal, with a faux-varnish of virtue atop. Mike Ashley may be in a different stratosphere to the new owners, but he too has prompted ethical debate within the fanbase. The responsibility, then, should not simply lie in the hands of collective individuals, but in societal structure and monopolising entities such as PIF.

But where is the line drawn? Should we throw all ethics to the wind? Shall we accept our doomed state and binge upon the devil’s fruit? These are questions that have been posed to Newcastle fans in recent weeks. 

Image: pxfuel

In my view, football is about more than money and ownership. With working class roots, it is a community sport - something that binds an area together. I believe that it is deeply misplaced to demonise fans who choose to remain entranced with Newcastle United. I might not be at peace with the new ownership, but I cannot simply renounce my connection with this community I have grown up as a part of.

Football deserves better than the rapidly increasing divide that money has entrenched. But fans who choose to remain loyal to Newcastle should not be shamed for society's failings.

Nations battle nations via proxy of football clubs while their billions steadily become trillions.

Yes, I feel a sense of guilt. I feel that same guilt when I consume virtually anything, and yet I hypocritically continue. It is almost impossible to live without this guilt, and day by day more pastimes and interests are corrupted by it. There was a time when miners would gather on fields and run around with a ball for a bit, and now, nations battle nations via proxy of football clubs while their billions steadily become trillions.

Criticise Saudi Arabia. Criticise those who defend human rights violations. But please, do not ridicule the old man who’s last joy is to attend the match on Saturday for failing to hold accountable someone he has never met from a country he has never been to.

Maybe ‘no ethical consumption’ is another tool to absolve an unethical consumer from guilt - but that guilt should not be weaponised against those at the bottom of the pyramid; but those at the top.

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AUTHOR: Oren Brown
English student. @orenajb

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