Mike Ashley is not a good football club owner. Nobody here is going to defend Mike Ashley, or call him a good owner, or a pillar of society, or...well, any of that. Mike Ashley sucks. That's not the point.
The point is that he's not as bad as a bloke who oversees human rights abuses and is widely believed to have ordered the murder and dismemberment of a critical journalist.
That's probably where the debate should end, really. People who do that sort of thing shouldn't be able to burnish their reputations by buying football clubs and dropping a bit of their vast fortunes into the transfer kitty. Have it in plain English: Mohamed bin Salman should not be allowed to buy Newcastle United.
This is what Newcastle's prospective owner, Mohamed bin Salman, had done to a young woman who campaigned for the right of women to drive. Loujain Al-Hathloul was delivered to Saudi torture by the man who controls Manchester City and Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed. Fit and proper. pic.twitter.com/Sis9phi1yo— Nicholas McGeehan (@NcGeehan) April 15, 2020
This is a fanbase who have complained for over a decade about Ashley 'ripping the soul out of the club'. That's not an inaccurate way of describing his impact.
But he's not as bad as a bloke who oversees human rights abuses and is widely believed to have ordered the murder and dismemberment of a critical journalist.
Having an owner who describes himself as a 'power drinker', who infamously threw up in a fireplace after (winning) a drinking contest with a colleague? Who drove Rafa Benitez out of the club, who's been staggeringly tight in the transfer market, who renamed St James' Park the Sports Direct Arena? Yeah. It sucks. It'd be great if Newcastle were sold. But not like this.
It's tempting to call this a front in the battle for football's soul, but that would be ridiculous. Look at the TV money. Look at some of the other owners around the sport. Look at everything surrounding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. That battle was lost a long time ago, this is just damage limitation.
Football fans are very bad at dealing with this. Apocalyptically bad. Look at the stick some football writers get from Manchester City fans for pointing out that their club's ownership group uses them as a PR front, breaks rules and...well, you know the rest.
Over the past decade I've reported on the the very real human rights abuses that take place in the UAE and how they are connected to leadership of Manchester City. That is small beer compared to the moral issues that surround NUFC's potential purchase.— James Montague (@JamesPiotr) April 15, 2020
There's no agenda against Newcastle here, or against City. It just so happens that their potential owner and actual owners respectively are among the very worst out there. They also have absolutely massive sacks of cash to pump into the club, and that makes people's brains go gooey.
Newcastle writer Mark Douglas asked his followers last week if they were troubled by the ethics of the money behind this potential takeover. Not if they would turn the deal down because of it, not if they'd stop supporting the club; just if they'd be troubled. Of the 10,000 people who voted, only one in four people cared at all. That's bananas. You don't care that your club – your club that you've been worried about the soul of, that you put your life into supporting – are going to be used by a regime of torturers and killers to paint a nice smily face on themselves?
If you don't care about that, you don't care about the soul of your club. You care about your club being good at football and spending money. In some ways, that's a completely legitimate position; you can't go through life making sure you never support (implicitly, or with money, etc) anything negative. But you don't get to talk about your club's soul.
Football's bad at this, because people who have enough money to buy big football clubs are exclusively bad people. There's no ethical justification for having that much money, and not really many ethical ways to get it. When every owner's a bit bad, it's easier for fans to hand-wave and go 'yeah, but X club's owner underpays his workers' or whatever.
Question - and it is certainly a valid one - to #nufc fans.— Mark Douglas (@MsiDouglas) April 15, 2020
Do ethics of reported Saudi involvement trouble you? Poll 👇
Football journalists aren't good at it, either. We don't do this kind of thing very well. We focus – because, y'know, it's our jobs – on the sporting impact, and the morality becomes a footnote. Henry Winter, arguably the country's leading football writer, wrote this week that '[Ashley's] pending exit from Newcastle should see the club’s soul restored (but with a caveat).'
It's not a caveat. You want your club to have a soul? Protest this takeover.