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Jerry Lockspieser: Money can’t buy you love – or can it?

Published:  24 August, 2023

How should we respond when values we hold dear conflict with opportunities for business advantage or personal gain? How best to navigate conflicting aspirations?

Older wine trade members will remember the days of Apartheid in South Africa. Despite a laggardly response by western governments, the clamour for trade, cultural, academic and sporting boycotts by the forces of light eventually won through. Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 following sustained campaigning over decades by value-based organisations including the Anti-Apartheid movement. As the Apartheid structure collapsed the country was welcomed back into the international fold and the economy – including the wine sector – was at the beginning of a new era.

Looking back at the Apartheid period, most western corporate and political leaders active at the time must be hanging their heads in shame. They sustained overt or covert support for the racist regime for decades. Sadly, economic, financial and political short-term self-interest stood tall against what was morally right. They had a choice and they made the wrong one.

    • Read more: Wines of Greece tastings mark record exports

Apartheid was a huge, stark example of the inexorable link between business and the society it operates in. Today’s huge issue for the West is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thousands of foreign companies have ceased trading in Russia, and economic and individual sanctions have been applied by the EU, USA and others. This time the moral issue – opposition to the invasion of a sovereign state – is clearly aligned with economic and political self-interest.

These two huge events come to mind when reading about the potentially game-changing entry of the Saudi Arabian Government into the global sporting world. Led by its challenge to European domination of elite football, most notably the casino that is the Premier League, it also includes golf, motor racing, boxing and other sports. Vast sums have been invested.

According to a comprehensive piece in The Economist, the Saudi Arabian state has invested directly in sport and other economic sectors, as well as via various agencies. The most notable of these is its Private Investment Fund (PIF). The PIF is said to have over $700 billion available and has already bought Newcastle United in the English Premier League, as well as ownership of four top clubs in the Saudi Arabian Pro League. The clubs have in turn been buying up top world players, often but not always towards the end of their careers, paying them unimaginably huge salaries many times greater than their previous already sky-high rewards.

Thirty-five-year-old French international Karim Benzema is reported to be earning €200m a year on a three-year contract, dwarfing the €14.5m a year he earned at Real Madrid. Thirty-three-year-old Jordan Henderson, previously of Liverpool and England, is said to be receiving £700,000 a week (£36m a year), almost four times his previous salary of around £200,000 a week. Most footballers end their careers at around the age these two (and several others) have signed contracts that will earn them more money than they could ever have dreamt of.

The Saudi Government describe their entry into sport as part of the overarching ‘Vision 2030’ strategy to move the economy away from oil dependency and into other sectors, including an aim to increase tourism from 3% to 10% of GDP. They hope sport will act as a catalyst to their global profile and economic growth.

Opponents describe the sports investment as ‘sportswashing’ to mask the fact that despite its stated modernisation drive, this is a country where human rights are curtailed, women were only given the right to drive a car in 2018, and being gay is illegal, at worst punishable by death. The murder of Saudi journalist Kamal Kashoggi in his own country’s consulate in Turkey in 2018 continues to cast a long shadow. There is little doubt the Saudi government has embarked on a charm offensive to reset its cultural and political image, alongside its economic growth plan.

Saudi Arabia’s divergence from values perceived in the west as essential to human rights and a modern society, combined with the mouthwatering pay being awarded to footballers, has raised the issue of where the line should be drawn between financial self-interest and wider values. This has flared up most poignantly around Jordan Henderson.

Henderson is a rarity amongst professional footballers for having been a constant and vocal supporter of LGBTQ+ rights. His move to Saudi was met with alarm and cries of betrayal from that community. Thomas Hitlszperger, an ex-professional footballer who came out once his career was over, wrote in The Guardian that by accepting the Saudi money Henderson’s hugely valued prior support no longer felt genuine. His argument is that if you stand up for something, you must stick with it through thick and thin. By going to Saudi he would be unable to speak on the issue, and was appearing to give validity to a state that repressed those he had previously sought to help.

It may seem unfair to single out Henderson for more criticism than players who have taken the Saudi coin and never spoken a word about LGBTQ+ rights. There have been many social media comments suggesting that anyone would take that kind of money. But not all have. Planet Football lists seven big-name players who it believes were offered eye-watering sums to go to Saudi but turned them down. We don’t know their reasons.

Speaking about Jordan Henderson to talkSPORT, England manager Gareth Southgate expressed his view in the balanced style he is known for:

"It's not for me to judge any individual whether they're in football or in any other industry," he said.

"I don't think he's changing his view on what he believes in. So now we're in a really complex world where, what are we saying, nobody should go to Newcastle? Should nobody work for companies that the Saudis own in London or should nobody buy oil from the Saudis?”

Therein lies the rub. At what point in our lives do we say no because a decision that may benefit us hugely in professional advancement, financial reward, or business growth clashes with other values we hold? If those values are challenged, can we argue that it’s better to engage with those who hold a different view, seeking to effect change from within? Or perhaps we decide we can put the values on hold for the length of the contract before embracing them again? And we may wonder how much difference one person can make?

Questions like these are important. Individuals’ words and actions can make a difference – especially if they are public figures with a platform. For the rest of us it may be a question of ‘La part du Colibri’ – knowing that if we all contribute a drop of water the fire will eventually be assuaged. At its simplest, we all enjoy being able to sleep well at night, comfortable with our choices.

The rise of personal values in overt decision making seems to be increasing. More people won’t fly because of the environmental damage it causes. Others become vegan. Some avid football fans boycotted the World Cup in Qatar because of the country’s human rights record, especially the treatment and deaths of workers in the construction of stadiums and other buildings.

Even wine has had its moment: in the summer of 1995 French president Jacques Chirac announced that France would recommence nuclear testing at the Mururoa atoll in the Pacific. There were howls of protest across the globe. Cue a call for Brits to boycott French wines. Many did, with French wine sales to their most important export market dropping by about 30% in the third quarter compared to the same period the year before, a weighty 20 million bottles less. France stopped its nuclear tests in January 1996 and we could start to enjoy our Champagne again.

Businesses that have embedded clear ethical principles into their DNA will find it easier to resolve the values against business gain questions; indeed, they may not face a dilemma at all. Having a chart to refer to makes plotting the course a great deal easier. B Corp principles and certification are a strong option.

For those who see the unacceptable side of the Saudi Arabian government, the lavishly paid footballers may simply prove the adage that, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”. Any of us might have to face that dilemma at some point in our lives. The Saudi government no doubt hopes that its tidal wave of expenditure will sweep away opposition and that contrary to the Beatles song, money will indeed buy them love.

Jerry Lockspeiser donates his fee for this piece to The Running Charity which works with homeless young people in the UK.