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We Don’t Know What or How to Value (Exhibit B)

My previous post was critical of our cultural obsession with celebrity and entertainment. I was a bit surprised by the amount of push back I received in various forums, specifically when it came to my views on the monarchy and its dubious (in my view) merits. But it’s relatively easy to be critical of institutions and entertainment options that I care very little for. I spend precisely zero time wondering about the ins and outs of the Royal Family, and I have never watched Glee. It’s not terribly difficult to be critical of people who obsess about things that don’t matter to me. But what about when the argument hits a bit closer to home? When it comes to the world of sport, for example?

This past week, Papiss Cissé—a Senegalese Muslim who plays for Newcastle United in the English Premier League—made headlines for refusing to don the team’s jersey for the coming year. It wasn’t a contract dispute or a disagreement with the coach or a desire for a transfer that led Cissé to his position; rather, it had to do with the sponsor’s logo that would be appearing on Newcastle’s shirts for the coming year. Wonga is, apparently, a loan agency that charges exorbitant interest rates to their (mainly poor) customers. Cissé balked at wearing a shirt with this logo on it because the kind of loan sharking Wonga is known for is in violation of Sharia law’s prohibitions against usury.

When I first read the article, I was quite impressed. How rare, I thought, to see a professional athlete making a principled decision based on moral convictions—especially in a world where we are far more accustomed to seeing athletes making headlines for far more unsavoury reasons than this. I admired Cissé for taking a stand against preying upon the vulnerable, for sticking to his religious convictions, even when this would be unpopular and possibly cost him a lot of money.

Truth be told, I even felt no small amount of shame. When I was younger, I played for a hockey team whose sponsor was a strip club (a strip club!!). I don’t quite recall what kind of ethical contortions I had to perform, but I somehow managed to convince myself that my decision was justifiable (I was being “in the world not of the world,” I wasn’t putting barriers between myself and others, I wasn’t being a holier-than-thou jerk, etc.). Cissé’s approach seemed much more laudable. Indeed, he went beyond mere refusal, but offered creative solutions to the problem, whether it was wearing a sponsor-free shirt, or wearing a shirt with the name of a charity on it. Fantastic stuff!

Well, apparently Cissé has now “come to an agreement” with the footballing powers that be, and will be donning the Newcastle shirt this year after all. According to PFA Chief Executive Gordon Taylor,

We’re working with Newcastle United, Papiss and his advisor to achieve a satisfactory settlement. We’re consulting experienced people within football, used to dealing with equality issues, who are Muslims.

Which sounds like legal-, politically correct-speak for, “money wins the day again.” So much for the inspiring story.

But regardless of what has transpired or may yet transpire from this situation, the fact remains that Papiss Cissé makes a truly obscene amount of money to play a game. In a world of enormous economic inequality and grinding poverty, professional footballers (and every other professional athlete in every other major sport) are happy to accept lavish sums of money to, well, keep us entertained. We don’t really care about the character of our sporting heroes. Indeed, in many cases we are prepared to put up with an astonishing amount of evidence of their obvious lack of character. As long as they can kick a ball or shoot a puck. As long as we are entertained. Just like the Royal Family. Just like Glee.

While the economies of Spain and Greece and Portugal and Italy (and others) limp along, while ordinary citizens with ordinary families struggle to make ends meet, professional football teams continue to generate astonishing amounts sums of revenue and professional football players continue to demand salaries that beggar the imagination. And this phenomenon is not of course, restricted to European football. Despite the city of Detroit recently declaring bankruptcy, the state of Michigan is apparently going to invest $284 million of taxpayers’ money to build a new arena for the Detroit Red Wings. Ho hum. On and on it goes.

I love (real) football, and I love hockey. But this is not right. The same thing I said in a conversation about my previous post holds true when it comes to the culture of celebrity that I happen to prefer. Whether it is obsession with the Royal Family or Hollywood stars or rich and famous athletes, these are all “symptoms of a culture that is very confused about what and how to value appropriately.”

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ron Kullman #

    Ryan: you are right on the money, (pardon the pun), again my friend. Societies constant need to be entertained pays the unreal wages of these athletes. The Olympics continues to be drowned out by “professional” athletes? I thought this league was set apart for amateurs? Not that the Olympic’s doesn’t have troubles of it’s own. It has also become big, big business. So much so that it seems many (but not all) will do whatever it takes to win.

    July 25, 2013
    • Yes, very true, Ron. Money makes the (sporting) world go round…

      July 26, 2013
  2. mike #

    Through a series of events in my life I lost everything I valued, yet from this place of brokenness(Grace) I learned just how temporary and fleeting the things of this World order are. Once you’ve been stripped of everything you come away with a broadened more enlightened perspective I believe, and this world no longer can get a hook in you because there’s nothing left inside you to hook to (you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God). I now fully comprehend on a deep level what scripture means to be in the world yet have no desire for it.
    If God Wills it, at some point in our lives the Ego’s pipe dreams give-way to reality and we will see the folly of it all. It is then..when we are laid bare with nothing left to grasp at, that Faith germinates.

    July 25, 2013
    • Thanks for this, Mike. I imagine it can be a frightful and liberating thing to be laid bare like this.

      July 26, 2013
  3. Kevin K #

    Though I do see the merits of your arguments, and some of the pushback on your previous post does seem a little over the top, I do sincerely wonder about the value of any sort of broad sweeping cultural critique. Certainly it is good to be aware of the waters in which we swim. That being said has there ever been a time in human history that we can make a general statement about a given culture and label it on the whole as “redemptive?” A cursory glance would (sadly) appear to suggest otherwise. Thanks for some current social fodder for existential rumination though, you certainly have people talking (or commenting, I suppose).

    July 25, 2013
    • Kevin K #

      Having said what I just said, and rereading the quote noted below, perhaps more important than the social observation is wrestling with the question “why?”

      “Whether it is obsession with the Royal Family or Hollywood stars or rich and famous athletes, these are all “symptoms of a culture that is very confused about what and how to value appropriately.”

      My question would be why do you think our culture is confused about value? and how do you purpose we live redemptively as followers of Christ in such a culture?

      July 25, 2013
    • Re: the merits of a sweeping cultural critique, I can only say that for me it is about trying to understand the waters that we swim in. I am under no illusions that culture was, is, or ever could be wholly redemptive. But I think that part of the task of discipleship is to be on the lookout for rivals that would call out for our allegiance. I think that in our culture, one of the chief rivals to a life patterned after Jesus is the idol of entertainment/distraction/triviality. At the very least, perhaps, it is one of the rivals that shows up most frequently in my own life.

      Re: why we are confused about value… I suppose my response would come out of the preceding. I think we are confused about value because we are prone to wander from what is true and good and beautiful in our world. In that sense, we are no different than any other human being or human culture that has ever walked the planet. We are prone to chasing after idols. We are prone to forgetting the one in whose image we are made and we are certainly prone to forgetting/ignoring/rejecting the purpose for which we were made. We are taking our place in a long line of experts at exalting self at the expense of God. Perhaps celebrity obsession is just one manifestation of what it looks like in our time and place in history.

      How do we live redemptively? Well, I suppose a start would be to simply reject the values that are foisted upon us by our culture. To stubbornly insist that the value of a life is not determined by its capacity to keep us entertained and champion the irreducible value of every human being. For me, to live redemptively is to demonstrate a different value system in how we treat the people we cross paths with every day. It is to elevate those society thinks little of and, perhaps, to remind ourselves (and others) that the people our culture idolizes are often (not always) unworthy of the attention that we lavish upon them.

      July 26, 2013
      • mike #

        “How do we live redemptively?”
        After some contemplation on this I realized that living ‘redemptively’ isn’t at all exclusive to the Christian disciple following Jesus or Jews living by The 10 Commandments/Muslims obeying the Koran, etc,etc. There are many people(some historically famous) who seem(ed) to live redemptively naturally,without any religious observance or orientation…..just thinking out loud here.

        July 28, 2013
      • Kevin K #

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. Much appreciated!

        July 29, 2013
  4. Tyler #

    O quam cito transit gloria mundi. I guess we’ve replaced our daily reminders. All that is holy…

    July 26, 2013

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