I’m the owner of the cutest tan puppy you’ve ever seen. Yes, I know, I’m bound to say that, but it’s true. And before you ask, yes, I picked him up from a rescue centre in the USA, not from a breeder. How anyone could abandon this doe-eyed boy, let alone mistreat him like his previous owners did? Maybe that’s how he got his limp.
So why am I here, banging on about a dog, even one as precious as this? Well, he needed a name. And, as a Liverpool fan, I had to pay homage to the club I’ve adored from afar.
I debated between the baseball related names Satchel and Killebrew, my sister’s curveball recommendation of Cashew, and Shankly after the late great manager. But there was one other name I kept going back to. After meeting him for the first time, he just felt like a Hendo in my gut.
Yes, my dog is named after Jordan Henderson and, yes, I now regret it.
Oh, how much has changed in a year. Jordan Henderson had been famously outspoken about “football [being] for everyone and the more of us who can take this message back into our homes, workplaces and daily lives the better.” These were his words from a pre-match programme during the Rainbow Laces campaign in October 2022.
During the prior year’s campaign, Henderson said, “I do believe when you see something that is clearly wrong and makes another human being feel excluded you should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them.”
He worked with LGBTQ+ groups and wrote letters to fans. He spoke up and didn’t make the cause about himself. That’s what an ally should do. These were values I looked up to and, as a Liverpool fan, he seemed like an honourable person to name my feisty puppy after.
I don’t have to tell you where this story goes. He used his platform for good up until this past summer, but when faced with a test of his character, his true beliefs and priorities showed in a heart-breaking and hypocritical way.
Prior to the England vs Italy game last month, Channel 4 aired an interview allowing Henderson to defend his move to the Saudi Pro League and give his reaction to the crowd booing him at the previous game. His explanation rang hollow and did no more good than his previous interview with Adam Crafton and David Ornstein of The Athletic.
In the Channel 4 interview he said, “before I went to Saudi, people knew the groups I supported and helped in the past and not once has it ever been mentioned about when I’ve been going there if I can’t do this and I can’t say that.”
“My values haven’t changed as a person just because I’m going to a different country to play football.”
Clearly, ‘the groups’ are so important that he did not once use the term LGBTQ+. It was the interviewer, Kelly Somers, who clarified that this was the group he was referring to.
The Channel 4 and Athletic interviews showed that Henderson was either supremely naive or his values weren’t as deep-seated as he previously wanted us to believe.
Proponents of Henderson’s move argued that it was life-changing money. But let’s be clear here. There’s a difference between someone struggling to pay bills and someone like Jordan Henderson making this decision. He was already making around £200,000 per week at Liverpool. More money was not going to make a difference in his or his family’s lives.
Yes, players have a right to do what’s best for their families, but it’s naive to say it’s just about the money. Brushing the social issues presented by Saudi money under the rug and ignoring the reasoning behind these huge contracts is playing right into the Saudi Pro League’s sportswashing agenda.
It must be possible for athletes to ensure monetary legacies for generations to come without giving up morals. Some of Henderson’s defenders mention the UK, US, and other western nations also have histories of sportswashing and human rights abuses. As an American, I know about our dark history and current issues – the overturning of abortion protections, state anti-LGBTQ+ laws, and police brutality to name a few recent injustices. I don’t want to minimise these problems and double-standards.
Once you highlight one social issue, it can be drowned out by ‘whataboutism’. It becomes a contest of which atrocity is worse. This is a losing battle and leads to few solutions. And it will not stop me from speaking out against the murdering of journalists, the lack of women’s rights, the illegality of being gay, and more in Saudi Arabia.
Henderson has rightfully stated he wants to respect Saudi culture. Where this argument falls flat is the lack of acknowledgement that there’s a difference between respecting a culture and being okay with egregious human rights violations.
Calling out a government does not equal disrespect of the people within the country. Additionally, don’t those in the LGBTQ+ community, women, Yemeni people, and more deserve respect and their basic human rights protected? Can’t I respect a culture and still be horrified by the dismembering of journalists? Human rights and international law should matter.
Using something as trivial as a dog’s name to talk about the Saudi soft power and sportswashing agenda may bring about pushback. But let me be clear, the embarrassment I feel at naming my dog Henderson is the most minuscule and unimportant of the many reasons why I feel the human Henderson has not only disappointed me but also became another celebrity showing young people that money is more important than human rights. It was deflating seeing another supposed role model cashing in on their morals.
I hope the criticism Henderson receives leads to more athletes speaking up for what’s right and aligning their actions with their words. But I do fear the discussion may lead in the opposite direction — greater fear, less talking, and even fewer role models in sport. Here’s to the hope.