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.”