After signing a massive contract with the Saudi Pro League’s Al-Ettifaq, former Liverpool soccer star Jordan Henderson is the latest sports figure to find himself embroiled in controversy for doing business with the anti-LGBTQ regime of Saudi Arabia.
Henderson is hardly alone. He joins a list that runs the gamut from Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman, and Brooks Koepka to eventually the entire PGA, Formula One, the WWE, and Newcastle United ownership. Plus there’s a chance the WTA will announce that its upcoming finals will be held in Riyadh.
At some point, that group is likely going to include a team from one of the “big four” American sports leagues.
As LGBTQ sports fans — especially ones aware of how easily concerns over the well-being of our community get brushed aside when transactions involve billions of dollars — we need to be prepared for this eventuality and ready to respond loud and clear. Probably sooner than most of us realize.
Saudi Arabia’s headfirst charge into major sports is the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman as part of efforts to sportswash his nation’s anti-LGBTQ record and repressive tactics like the brutal assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And popular American sports are a big part of his plan.
In an interview with The Athletic’s Matt Slater, Saudi expatriate entrepreneur Dr. Khalid Aljabri (who is also the son of the nation’s former minister of state) explained, “MBS is investing like a runaway train, throwing cash out the window. What happened with golf was just the beginning: MBS will target other US sporting institutions through investments or sadistic takeovers…
“The US is essential to Saudi Arabia. MBS craves pre-Khashoggi US engagement and red carpet treatment,” he emphasized.
Should this prediction come true, at some point, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) is going to make an American sports owner an offer they can’t refuse. If you know anything about sports owners, you surely realize that it’s quite easy to find an offer they can’t refuse — all the PIF has to do is keep adding zeroes.
To underscore this, last winter, the NBA changed its bylaws to allow sovereign wealth funds to purchase minority stakes in its teams. The NFL currently forbids similar foreign investments but anyone who’s observed that league do business can verify that Roger Goodell turning down billions to do the right thing happens as frequently as the Browns winning the Super Bowl.
Once the PIF makes inroads into American team ownership, a portion of our country’s LGBTQ fanbase will suddenly find itself asked to continue supporting a team owned by the investment fund of a regime that makes homosexuality a crime punishable by death while arresting and imprisoning members of its nation’s LGBTQ population.
This is exactly what happened with LGBTQ English soccer fans after the PIF bought Newcastle. It caused such a rift in the community, in fact, that Newcastle’s United with Pride fan group ended up leaving Pride in Football over heated arguments about continuing to support their club in spite of its ownership.
It’s sometimes difficult to be a fan of any team. But even at their worst, sports shouldn’t cause an existential crisis. That’s what life is for.
What’s more, as soon as the PIF buys its way into one of America’s sports leagues, every one of their team’s Pride efforts will immediately ring hollow and reek of sportswashing. It will be a reminder to that team’s LGBTQ fans that they’re props to distract from human rights abuses being committed against other members of our community.
No one should have to question whether their devotion to something fun is being used for such insidious purposes.
All of this underscores why it’s important to amplify both the MBS regime’s anti-LGBTQ record and how they’re attempting to cover up atrocities through involvement in sports. As last year’s World Cup in Qatar reminded us, once the games begin, it’s incredibly hard to keep the focus on a nation’s homophobic and transphobic policies.
In order to avoid letting MBS and Saudi Arabia get away with similar sportswashing, the time to start talking about their horrific anti-LGBTQ human rights record is now.
Make that subject part of every conversation involving pro golf, the WWE, or Newcastle soccer so that it’s impossible to separate the games from the MBS regime’s abuses. Pressure the rest of sports media to ask about it with every team owner or league that considers doing business with them.
It’s nearly impossible to stop the momentum of an overwhelming amount of money like the PIF controls. But we have the power to make any owner who does business with them understand that they’ll be taking the cash with blood on their hands too.