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Is Cisse right to protest Wonga?

Papiss Cisse has been held out of training for his protest against Newcastle United shirt sponsor Wonga. Is he right to stand his ground?

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Stu Forster

Newcastle United forward Papiss Cisse has not travelled with the team to Portugal for their preseason preparations, according to Lee Ryder of The Chronicle, and based on media reports from this past weekend, it is heavily speculated that the reason is the striker's objection to new shirt sponsor Wonga on religious grounds.

Wonga is an online-based payday loan company that charges a representative APR of 5853% on loans (up from 4214% when the sponsorship was first announced in October). Their business practices are described by some as unethical, predatory, exploitative, and usurious. Usury is prohibited by Islamic Sharia law, which is reportedly the basis for Cisse's refusal to wear the kit.

This latest development has kicked off yet another debate about Wonga's merits, as well as scrutiny about whether or not Cisse has a legitimate complaint. As a vocal detractor of Wonga (and similar companies), I've had several discussions on Twitter about about this controversy. Many people seem convinced that the problem lies with Cisse, and that he should shut his mouth and get in line for the good of the team. I've reproduced paraphrases of the most popular arguments I've seen against Cisse, and I've responded to each one. It is my sincere hope that doing this will not escalate the tone of the argument, but rather provide a forum for rational discourse. Please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section.

"Wonga just charges interest, and there's nothing wrong with that"

...the conventional payday loan business model fundamentally relies on repeat usage—often, renewals by borrowers who are unable to repay the full loan amount upon their next payday—for its profitability.-Pew Charitable Trusts Study, July 2012

This controversy isn't about what Wonga do, it's how they do it and to what extent. As mentioned above, Wonga's loans come with a representative APR of 5853%. Wonga's PR department will tell you that this number is misleading, because people aren't expected to take out loans for that long using their service. What this spin ignores is that (A) other companies offering the same services manage to keep their own APR number out of the stratosphere, and (B) that their customers often end up having to roll over their loans in order to pay them off, resulting in rapidly increasing interest payments. Wonga's advertising campaigns depict their customer base as web-savvy individuals taking out short-term loans to pay for vanity projects, but the truth is much more sinister. Pew Charitable Trusts released a study in July 2012 of payday lenders in the United States that concluded that "seven in 10 borrowers use payday loans to deal with recurring expenses, while only one in six uses the loans for unexpected emergencies. Pew’s analysis shows that the vast majority of borrowers use the loans on a long-term basis, not a temporary one. Thus it seems that the payday loan industry is selling a product that few people use as designed and that imposes debt that is consistently more costly and longer lasting than advertised. This circumstance is especially troubling because the conventional payday loan business model fundamentally relies on repeat usage—often, renewals by borrowers who are unable to repay the full loan amount upon their next payday—for its profitability." (p. 29)

In other words, by charging such high interest rates, payday lenders create cycles of dependency for their customers, which they specifically court via targeted advertisement (see arguments here and elsewhere that football is the "working man's sport"). It should be noted that this specific study was conducted of lenders in the United States. Thirty-two states authorize the practice of payday lending, ( and 26 of those 32 have interest caps. Missouri's cap is the most lenient by far at 1950%, which is still well below Wonga's fee. Lenders in the uncapped states charge an APR of 417-574% on average, according to a January 2012 report by National People's Action. Most states have their cap at 390% or less, which the Pew study linked above still found unacceptable.

So then, charging interest rates at less than 10% of Wonga's rate is already a highly controversial practice, one that has produced a net loss in the United States economy (Insight Center for Community Economic Development, March 2013). Wherever the brick-and-mortar cousins of the online-only Wonga pop up, violent crime rates go up and property rates and morale go down, according to a May 2011 Criminology & Public Policy study, linked here. Wonga does not own or operate physical locations, but the effect (creating dependency) is the same, and again, we're discussing interest rates that are dwarfed by the 5853% APR number. Wonga isn't "just charging interest," they're locking well-meaning people into a debtor's prison, and all the while they're smiling at them with their creepy puppets.

"Wonga is a legal business, therefore everything they do is okay"

As we've noted, Wonga could not operate as it does in many other countries, including the United States, a country built on debt. (The Atlantic) Wonga has had its share of run-ins with the Office of Fair Trading. (The Huffington Post) Indeed, politicians like Stella Creasy have spoken out against Wonga in particular and have taken or are taking steps to curtail the payday lending industry (BBC, The Daily Mail, The Sun). Their business practices may be legal now, but they may not always be (but who knows? For their part, Wonga are quite active on Downing Street as well - The Guardian). In any case, the legality of a company has little to do with its ethics, nor does it make it immune to protest.

"Cisse is just trying to engineer a move away from Newcastle"

It's understandable that Newcastle supporters would be paranoid on this front, having watched Joey Barton negotiate his way onto Queens Park Rangers via Twitter just two years ago. It's also understandable that Papiss Cisse would want out. He's one of the more respected strikers in the Premier League, and he's stuck on a team that finished 16th last season and haven't added to the senior squad at all this summer. So if he wanted out, why wouldn't he just say that? He might lose the support of a portion of the fanbase, but I think most would actually understand if he came out and said, "I want to play in the Champions League." In fact, many lobbied behind Barton when he criticized the club on his way out the door. It is possible that he's angling for a new contract, and in fact Scott Wilson of The Northern Echo reported as much early Wednesday:

If this is indeed true, then we've got a whole new set of issues. However, it seems disingenuous to insinuate that Cisse is hiding behind his religion in order to force the club to sell - in fact, taking such a position further implies that the issue isn't worth talking about at all. During silly season, we train ourselves to be skeptical - players, club officials, and media members often say one thing and mean another. Papiss takes his religion seriously, if interviews with him are to be believed, so I find doubting his sincerity on this issue a bridge too far.

"Cisse makes £40,000 a week, so he has nothing to complain about"

Sure, I would jump at the chance to play a professional sport for exorbitant amounts of money, and I might be willing to sacrifice a few of my principles along the way. Being an athlete is an enviable position, and it seems that too many of them don't appreciate the privilege that they've been afforded. I understand it when people yell at the TV and say things like, "Shut up and play, you get paid millions to kick a ball!" The privileged situation of the athlete does not strip them of their rights, however. I believe that individuals should have the right to question and perhaps even protest their employers when asked to do or represent something that compromises their value system. That right doesn't go away at a certain income level.

[source for the wage figure]

"Cisse wore a Virgin Money kit, therefore he is a hypocrite"

This is by far the most common refrain I have seen in response to the controversy. The idea is that since Virgin Money (Newcastle's previous sponsor) also lends money, Cisse is a hypocrite for objecting to one and not the other.

This argument is specious at best. It is entirely possible to believe that charging a significantly higher rate of interest places Wonga in the unethical category, while leaving Virgin Money and others on the other side of that line, just as it is possible to believe, for example, that questioning an enemy combatant is fine and that waterboarding them to obtain information is not.

Part of the problem stems from a misunderstanding of Islam or religious belief in general. I am not Muslim, so I cannot relate to Cisse's specific experience. I am a Christian, so I do understand how one's views can be misconstrued based on the beliefs and actions of others. I hold certain views that would not be considered orthodox by some Christian bodies, but might be by others. Part of this is due to differing hermeneutical (interpretative) philosophies. The newest book of the Bible is over 1900 years old. There are 66 books in total, and they were each written to address specific issues in a culture that is not my own, in 3 different languages that I do not speak. It is inevitable, then, that differences in opinion should arise. It would be very easy for someone not especially familiar with Christianity to project the Westboro Baptist Church's views on homosexuality (or to use a slightly less extreme example, the typical conservative Evangelical view on women's public role in the church) onto me or any other Christian, but these are not my views. Many people looking into a religion from the outside tend to project the most fundamental interpretation onto its followers, for many reasons, but it's important to remember that not all devout adherents are fundamentalist.

So then, to run to Twitter and claim to be an expert on Sharia law because you know a couple of Muslims who disagree with Cisse's stance doesn't really prove anything. Many religious adherents choose not to interpret every single text in their holy book in a literal sense, but to take the principles behind the teachings and apply them to modern life. It is therefore completely plausible to interpret passages on usury (of which there are many in most religions) to apply to certain situations and not others.

The bottom line is that I support the right of the individual to protest when his or her employer asks him or her to endorse a company that contradicts their values, whether religiously motivated or not. In this case, I believe Papiss Cisse is right to refuse to wear Wonga if he believes that doing so will compromise those values. I admit that I will be disappointed if this also turns out to be about money, and perhaps I'm a bit naive in hoping that this isn't the case. It's hard to see how this will end up - as Richard Farley of Pro Soccer Talk points out, this appears to be a no-win situation. I believe the best possible outcome would be either Wonga or Newcastle granting Cisse a waiver and allowing him to wear a blank shirt, a la Freddie Kanoute. (BBC) That would certainly be their best move of the summer.