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On Club Ownership and Divergent World Views

What's a fan to do when their world view clashes horribly with that of the club owners? For many Liverpool fans, it's become a non-issue as John W. Henry cements himself as a leader par excellence.

"So, you've won this twice since Arsenal last won a trophy?"
"So, you've won this twice since Arsenal last won a trophy?"
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Enjoying things created by anyone other than yourself can often be fraught with moral bargaining when the creator of that which you love is ethically dubious in some way. This conversation often revolves around brilliant but controversial artists whose work stands on its own but whose moral failings diminish that same work for those who cannot or feel disinclined to separate the art from the artist.

Last week, I encountered a conversation about this topic as it applies loosely to football: what happens when you want to support your club but your club owners possess a set of values deeply divergent from your own? Every penny you spend supporting your club ends up supporting the owners in some way, and in the worst case scenario you can be left feeling like you're part of an elaborate money laundering scheme for whichever corrupt overlord decided he or she wanted to own a football team.

The easiest solution is, of course, to not have terrible owners. Easier said than done, obviously, and certainly having a decent owner is a privilege in the Premier League at the moment. Liverpool fans have been able to rally around John W. Henry, and his success with his other business ventures and the investment made in his football club have the future looking bright.

But more than just bailing out a club that was in danger of going into administration three years ago, and more than spending millions of pounds on transfer fees, it's been Henry's approach to Liverpool FC that has people feeling generally sound about the way things are being done. With the Boston Red Sox having just won the World Series for the third time since Henry purchased the baseball team, the rewards of long-term investment in a club are again at the forefront of many people's minds.

Where some think Henry failed in recent months was in purchasing The Boston Globe, given that investing in print media in an era that is increasingly digital seems at least slightly backwards. The more tetchy amongst the Liverpool faithful were mostly upset that he spent $70 million on a paper product rather than their favourite football club in the middle of the summer transfer window, but after Henry took ownership at the end of October, he wrote a piece for the paper that summed up a philosophical strategy already present in his ownership of the Red Sox and emerging in his ownership of Liverpool football club.

Truth is, I prefer to think that I have joined the Globe, not purchased it, because great institutions, public and private, have stewards, not owners. Stewardship carries obligations and responsibilities to citizens first and foremost — not to shareholders. […]

With the Red Sox came the most compelling cause in baseball. I knew I would wake up every morning to responsibilities that mattered to millions of passionate Sox fans — to end a dry spell of eight-plus decades without the joys of a World Series championship. The Red Sox provided a strong connection — between neighbors, family members, co-workers, and generations. And who wouldn’t go to work at Fenway Park if they had the opportunity! When we acquired the Red Sox, profit was literally at the bottom of our list of goals. We were determined to do whatever it took to win.

Henry's entire op-ed is worth reading if you're at all interested in the important role news organizations can and should play in our culture, but for the Liverpool focused amongst us the above quotes stand out as the key takeaways. In either case he's not speaking directly to his concerns on Merseyside, but it's a case of the total being greater than the sum of its parts. You wouldn't have to twist Henry's arm to convince him that Liverpool Football Club is a great institution just like his beloved Red Sox or The Boston Globe.

More to the point, though, is Henry's description of his work in a way that seems ground centrally in the larger community that revolves around each of his business properties. I've worked my entire professional life at not-for-profit charities, and have never heard a for-profit businessperson describe their work in the same terms we use daily for the work that we do.

Good charities place stewardship at their forefront: the work we do for our stakeholders — whether they're those who value us, who invest in us, or who benefit from what we put back out into the community — is due to an inherent belief in the value and importance of the work we do. Profit is important insofar as it helps keeps the lights on; the rest gets reinvested back into the organization to grow and improve on the existing work. It's not enough to be "on the side of virtue", as Henry puts it, but that success comes from "long hours, creative thinking, and hard work ahead."

It's a refreshing road map for a football club to be on, and it speaks to wanting to build something for the benefit of the people, not just for the benefit of Henry's wallet. Maybe it's naive to think that, but there's a sincerity to the man that makes it believable in a way that it isn't coming from billionaire oligarchs. John W. Henry believes in this team.

It's probably clear to long-time readers that I am one of those people who falls into the "can't separate the artist from the art" category of fans; it's brought me some very challenging moments in my Liverpool fandom, but the club's current ownership has never been a part of any moral soul-searching I've had to do. That's a pretty great feeling, and definitely not one that can be bought or sold as easily as a football team. That kind of certainty can only be earned.

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