Indulge me

Back in the middle ages, papal indulgences were big business.

The basic idea was that, if you’d behaved badly, you could mitigate the spiritual consequences of that behaviour (in other words, reduce the time you had to spend in purgatory before being allowed into heaven) by funding good works.

A bit like carbon offsetting, really. Burn a village, build a cathedral – call it quits.

Of course, this kind of spiritual indemnity didn’t come cheap, so papal indulgences were mostly focused on the small group of rich and powerful people who could afford them.

The modern equivalent of these people might be a large multinational corporation: Coca-Cola, say, or BP.

Which is why it’s been interesting to see what happened this week when Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably football’s biggest superstar, ostentatiously removed a bottle of Coca-Cola from the table at a press conference and insisted on drinking water instead.

Coca-Cola, which had spent a large amount of money sponsoring the football tournament in which Ronaldo was appearing, was understandably unhappy.

Their lawyers rifled through the contract and forced UEFA into issuing a strict instruction that no more sponsors’ bottles were to be moved.

But the damage was already done. Coke’s share price plummeted by $4bn, as analysts across the globe calculated the likely impact from one of the world’s leading athletes pointing out that sugary fizzy drinks aren’t good for you.

It’s an odd thing, when you think about it. Nobody at Coke can deny that Ronaldo was right. So they find themselves, instead, in the slightly uncomfortable position of insisting that no-one be allowed to point out the truth, because they’ve paid for a different story.

UEFA, in the meantime, has to balance the embarrassment of indulging Coke in this story against the benefit to grassroots football from their sponsorship billions.

It’s a bit like the arts world, where theatres and galleries have had to wrestle with the ethics of accepting money from opioid drug dealers or oil companies – money without which they might struggle to operate.

I don’t really know what the answer is.

I suppose my view is that it’s good to have people build cathedrals.

But it would be better if they didn’t burn the villages first.

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