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On Jordan Henderson’s Vanishing Integrity

The ex-Skipper and self-proclaimed ally spent much of Tuesday undoing the goodwill he’d cultivated.

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Al-Ettifaq v DAMAQ - Saudi Pro League Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

This is probably overly simplistic but a way I think about box-to-box midfielders, the Classic 8, is a footballer than go both ways. One whose defensive nous is equally as potent as their attacking flair. They are a player then that, while on the pitch, can literally have it all.

It’s ironic that Jordan Henderson, ex-Captain for one of the most iconic Reds teams and certainly the most successful Liverpool side that most fans today can say they’ve lived through, is a box-to-box midfielder. Because Hendo’s rambling and often incoherent interview with The Athletic’s David Ornstein and Adam Crafton boiled down to a broken man struggling to maintain the image he’d so carefully cultivated - that of an ally to all but especially to the LGBTQ+ community - while debasing himself at the foot of a Golden Calf in the form of the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Money talks, even if Jordan Henderson would have you believe otherwise.

Jordan Henderson himself will likely paint what’s proceeded and what’s to come as overly simplistic but the ringing response in my head since working my way through the interview - painfully, alternately cringing and exclaiming in bemused shock - is that Henderson’s image of a man of integrity has been proven to be hollow. How else can one reconcile Hendo insisting that the mere presence of athletes or global events like the World Cup would bring “change” to a region with his refusal to offer anything in the way of obvious support via something like rainbow laces or a rainbow armband?

What are we, witnesses to the same Jordan Henderson that clearly swallowed up the adulation that was offered him when he was championed as a unifying voice during controversy around players taking a knee and hailed as an ally for the LGBTQ+ community, to make of this version of the man implying that since he hasn’t seen oppression committed by the Saudi government, he can’t say with certainty that it’s real? It’s one thing to know intellectually what it means to have to see someone cravenly serving a cruel master in service of self-enrichment, it’s quite another to witness it directly.

It would be overly simplistic to suggest that Henderson should know better. That he should know that change - true, lasting change and not whatever the “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenario implemented during the World Cup in Qatar that only extended to the athletes and likely was conveniently abandoned once the circus left town - doesn’t come without hard work, commitment, and an acknowledgement of some measure of self-sacrifice. Ironic, again, because Hendo had always positioned himself as someone who wasn’t afraid of putting in the extra shift, taking the turn in the muck and away from the limelight, sacrificing individual glories in service of the team. A hero that Liverpool could be proud of.

But it’s obvious in his interview where, in points, he reflects naively on the experiences he, as a privileged athlete, had while in Qatar and thus far in Saudi. It’s obvious in his insistence that people should still see him as a good person because he took steps “above and beyond” by donning the aforementioned rainbow laces and armband. It’s obvious in his wrongheaded sentiment that things change simply because someone exists in a place.

I say this from experience, as someone that’s planned actions and is involved in civil rights work away from Liverpool fandom. And I can understand that for many, especially in the United States where I am located, it is easy to believe that, for example, a complicated and decades-long movement like the Civil Rights Movement can be depicted and metabolized by a large number of folks as 1) Rosa Parks got tired; 2) Martin had a dream; 3) People marched; and 4) Lyndon B. Johnson ended racism. But whatever it is the English version of this flattened understanding, it doesn’t take much digging and much reading to know the truth: that many, many, many unnamed people suffered and struggled and sacrificed for far longer than the 15-20 years that most people note as the Civil Rights Era to secure and win the rights we hold as obvious and inevitable today.

That struggle, though for different identities, is linked to what folks are fighting for now. And as neat and tidy an image that is cast by Jordan’s overly hopeful take that standing on a pitch somewhere and merely existing is enough to be a catalyst for change is not only naive, but it somehow manages to impugn the hard work of the many LGBTQ+ activists that are likely risking their very lives every day to ensure a future where people like them can also simply exist, drawing breath on a football pitch or in a movie theater or at a park.

It is not overly simple, the path to liberation. And organizers that I admire, like Mariame Kaba, often point to the fact that we’ll need every single one of us struggling in our own way, bringing our own little gifts as offerings, and tethering them together to gain that inch that might finally loosen the vise that bigotry has on so many of the societies we’ve built.

But two things I know that Jordan seems to still need to be made aware of: 1) humans built these monstrosities, and so human can and will unbuild them; and 2) that is all part of the hard work of living a life in community with people.

I know we’ll find our way to that promised land where folks don’t have to worry about being ostracized for whom they love or who they are. Where people won’t have to worry that a bad string of luck or a few points on some stock ticker means they’ll lose the roof over their heads. Where kids won’t have to go to bed hungry or wake up to the image of a parent lost to deportation or detention.

And I know that we’ll put in the hard work - the good work - to get there. I hope Jordan realizes, one day, and opts to finally and truly cast his lot with the people. We could use someone that likes the graft.

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