Why Premier League footballers were the only group in the entertainment industry ordered to “do their bit” during the Coronavirus crisis
The Coronavirus pandemic is a crisis with catastrophic consequences for public health, society, and the economy; this much has become abundantly clear since March 2020. The secondary impacts on the livelihoods of millions of people in the country, not to mention the demand for resources for a fragile National Health Service (NHS), will be felt for some time. We are all having to make some kind of sacrifice, whether that is simply restricting ourselves to the confines of our own homes, losing our jobs, or even losing loved ones. The government is having to expend monumental sums of money to hold the economy together, and the NHS is crying out for more equipment and cash. With all of this considered, should the richest people in this country be asked to pay more and do their bit for the greater good? I would argue yes, absolutely.
As such, perhaps it makes sense that the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, argued that Premier League footballers should “take a pay cut and play their part”, and that “Given the sacrifices many people are making, the first thing PL footballers can do is make a contribution” in the government’s daily Coronavirus press briefing on 2nd April. After all, with average salaries exceeding £60,000 per week, top-flight footballers must be some of the country’s wealthiest, right?
Well, no. A quick glance at the figures shows that even the most illustrious names in English football are nowhere near the most wealthy people in the country; Sergio Aguero was named as the division’s wealthiest player in the Sunday Times Rich List 2019, with his £250k per week salary and lucrative sponsorship deals giving him a net worth of £58 million. The number one position in the rich list, meanwhile, went to Sri and Gopi Hinduja and family, who have a worth of £22 billion — approximately 380 times the worth of the Manchester City striker. In fact, Aguero is far from the wealthiest person at his club; this, of course, is the owner, Sheikh Mansour, who has a net worth of approximatey £18 billion. Incidentally, two Premier League club owners make the 2019 Rich List — Alisher Usmanov (Arsenal) and Roman Abromavich (Chelsea). Of course, this is not to belittle the exorbitant sums of money earned by Premier League footballers and dismiss their salaries as trivial; the point is that these players are millionaires on the payroll of billionaires. So why have players been so often portrayed as greedy and with too much money their own good, whereas billionaire owners do not receive the same criticism? As The Guardian sports writer Jonathan Liew asks, why go after Jeff Schlupp’s wages when the owners have a combined worth of £80 billion? In fact, seen as only a handful of the UK’s billionaires are football club owners, and thus those in football make up a tiny proportion of the richest of the rich, why is football the industry to be name-checked and targeted by the government in its daily press briefing in a time of crisis?
This was the general sentiment that I saw expressed on Twitter and beyond following Hancock’s comments, although admittedly my Twitter feed most certainly has a pro-football bias. Why target the footballers? I confess, this opinion is coloured by my love for the game, but, without wanting to go too far in defending the often-staggering wealth in modern football, I believe that this question is one of class, of elitism, and of politics.
Football in the UK has traditionally been held as the working class sport, with the professional game growing from the mill towns and industrial cities of Victorian Britain, helped by the fact that all you need to play is something resembling a ball and somewhere to kick it, and unhindered by the barriers of elitism found in the history of the ‘gentlemen only’ sports clubs such as tennis and golf. But is this still true in the Sky Sports-fulled era of millionaire footballers? In terms of the backgrounds of players, it seems so. The Guardian highlighted that a study by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission found that only 5% of male international players attended private school, compared to 37% for rugby and 43% of the England cricket team. Similarly high figures are attributed to actors and top musicians. It is pertinent to remember that this stat only addresses England players; in fact, you would be hard-pressed to think of any elite footballer that had come from a relatively privileged upbringing, with many of the best in history coming from working-class upbringings or out-and-out poverty. As such, one of football’s greatest romantic ideals remains the fact that with talent and hard work, a kid from the favela or the council estate can become a household name and rich beyond their wildest dreams. Such rags-to-riches stories are harder to find in many other sports — it is not so captivating to hear the story of a young lad overcame the odds of his mediocre private school only having one patchy rugby pitch to become an England scrum-half.
The crux of this is that even the wealthiest footballers are not tended to be thought of as part of the country’s elite by the public, let alone by the landed gentry themselves. In fact, I would go so far as to say they represent something deeply concerning to the upper class and contemporary aristocracy; young, working class men with immense wealth, most of whom left school at 16 at the latest. Perhaps this is the underlying reason for the snobbery of middle-class rugby fans who profess the merits of their ‘real sport’ for ‘real men’ (read: gentlemen), or for the reputation as footballers as stupid — how dare an upstart scouser earn more than a well-spoken public-school home counties lad? Such an opinion, whether consciously-held or not, is bound to be manifested even greater in the circles surrounding the political elite and friends of the Conservative MPs. As such, top-flight footballers are one of the only groups of well-off men that the elite do not regard as friends and allies.
This position of footballers as rich but not elite allows politicians like Matt Hancock, a privately-schooled graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge, to score political points by appearing to punch up, while in reality he is kicking down. Furthermore, generally footballers tend to be rather politically inert, with top-division players rarely expressing political opinions publicly, at least until their playing career is over. Even then, those that are outspoken are often chided with the intellectual snobbism of “stick to football”. Footballers are an unusual group in that they are of little political use to the elite; they won’t donate to party like the business owners and fund managers do, and they won’t be political mouthpieces. This is further compounded by the fact that many in football are particularly frosty to the right-wing press which is so often the voice of the Conservative agenda, let alone the outright animosity towards The Sun following their coverage of the Hillsborough Disaster.
In addition, the reluctance of footballers to speak out politically perhaps made them an easy target for the Health Secretary. It was reported that many players were furious at being targeted, and former players and managers more at liberty to speak out blasted Hancock’s comments. For starters, players had been organising the #PlayersTogether initiative for some time prior to the statement. Secondly, it is not hard to understand why players would be reticent to take a pay cut to cover the costs of non-playing staff wages when they know that their billionaire owner would be more than capable of picking up the slack. This is especially true when you consider that the league contributes more than £1 billion in tax — would a 50% wage cut actually be worse for the NHS because of this? It seems that the best outcome would be for players to remain on 100% pay (and thus the highest tax bracket) and contribute voluntarily, as they have already proved willing to do, while owners cover the wages of furloughed non-playing staff unless there is genuine financial need, which I am fairly certain is not the case for Liverpool or Tottenham. Yet, the owners have not been scrutinised as the players have; indeed, the reversal of the decision to use the government’s furlough scheme by Liverpool can be attributed at least in part to outcry from the club’s own fans, rather than pressure from government cabinet ministers.
What all of this misses, though, is the lack of press appetite for the good news stories, especially when it comes to football doing positive things. Take, for example, the contrast in level of media coverage of two players from the West Midlands, Jack Grealish and Ruben Neves. Aston Villa captain Grealish flouted lockdown rules and visited a friend on an evening, and was accused of attempting to drink drive to get home, appearing to hit a parked car in the process, with the story receiving widespread coverage in the national press. In the same week, Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Neves donated two ventilators worth almost £30,000 to a hospital in his home city in Portugal. The latter story did not appear to make it past the regional papers. Indeed, as a Wolves fan I could not help but notice the lack of attention given by the national press to the positive actions of my club and its owners, such as the fact that all stadium staff were placed on leave weeks ago with a commitment to full pay, or the numerous donations of medical supplies by Chinese owners Fosun to the city of Wolverhampton. The playing and coaching staff have already made a six-figure donation to the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust aside from the #PlayersTogether initiative. In the case of all of these welcome gestures of generosity and assistance, they were reported in local papers and through official club media, but were not apparent in national news. Perhaps many other clubs have had similar stories from their players, but those stories are not deemed interesting enough for the national press to share. The example of Ruben Neves also serves as a reminder that a large proportion of the league’s players are foreign, and are sending significant donations to their home countries which are also ravaged by the virus.
Many footballers, then, are doing their bit, or at least are doing a great deal more than many of the other millionaires of the entertainment business. The reasons that they and they alone were targeted by the Health Secretary in a press briefing in a pandemic evidently go beyond the fact that they are rich. Classism and elitism play a significant role, with this wealthy but relatively politically inert group of formerly working-class young men being the subject of disdain for the Conservative establishment. Maybe it is the fact that it is seen as huge salaries for doing nothing, yet I would argue that it is far easier to earn millions of pounds per year collecting rent on inherited property than to become a Premier League footballer, and only one of these career paths is open even slightly to a young person growing up in a working-class household. Furthermore, while the more elite but less lucrative sports admittedly are less rife for scrutiny due to the lower wages involved, millionaires of the arts never seem to receive the same attention; I have seen no calls for more action from Daisey Ridley or Tom Hiddlestone. From a broader perspective, it is easy to forget the absurdity of treating the NHS as a charity when it is a publicly-funded service; yet Conservative MPs such as Hancock would much sooner individuals outside their circle be pressured into donating their salary than raise tax on their Tory donor, hedge-fund managing financier friends. Above all, though, as former England captain Wayne Rooney observed, in a time when he is in charge of co-ordinating the government’s response to the biggest crisis in a generation, “why was the pay of footballers even in his head?”