Joe Phelan on football's moral crisis.

Paul T. P. Wong, the renowned Canadian psychologist, once famously said ‘true character is often revealed in times of crisis’. It is, as Wong has oft stated, very easy to present a positive and amenable version of oneself when things are going swimmingly, but to do so when the chips are down is another matter entirely.

The chips are, at the moment, most certainly down, and though this turmoil and chaos has produced an abundance of stories to warm even the coldest of hearts, it has also given us examples of individuals that have, shamelessly, showcased themselves to be more focused on greed and financial gain than the welfare of other people.

We are, at the time of writing, going through a period that is difficult on a number of levels, with isolation beginning to take its toll, concerns around whether or not to venture outdoors lest we find ourselves afflicted with COVID-19’s hideous symptoms, and financial worries being compounded as it becomes more and more likely that ‘normal life’ will not return for a while yet.

The vast majority – if not all – readers of this piece currently find themselves confined to their homes, told that they are only allowed to venture outside for food, medicine or exercise, and have quickly found that their lives revolve around sleeping late, drinking buckets of coffee and watching Tiger King. And, while many of us would have considered such a lifestyle heavenly this time last year, it hasn’t taken long for the novelty of confinement to lose its lustre. 

We are also, of course, mourning the loss of sports, unless you’re an avid follower of the Belarusian Premier League. Those that have, until very recently, filled much of their weekends with football matches, highlight shows and radio phone-ins, are having to find different ways to fill the time. And, though I have spoken previously in this very publication about the fact that I rarely watch full games anymore, the pause in the football season has completely altered my podcast schedule, which is something I’m only now learning to cope with.

I speak in jest, of course: such ‘issues’ are entirely trivial when compared to the plentiful challenges faced by health workers on a daily basis. These people, who are through no fault of their own underfunded, under-prepared and under-resourced, are putting their lives on the line to treat and care for those who have fallen victim to coronavirus.

The plight of the emergency services, and various other people deemed key workers, has seen various examples of goodwill, kindness and selflessness, not only from individuals, but also from businesses. Here in the UK, the National Theatre is streaming free plays, Leon is offering meals to NHS staff with a 50 percent discount, NCP is providing free parking to all key workers, and Fullers has announced it will not seek any rent payments from its tenanted pubs while they remain closed.

These are not decisions that have been taken with profit in mind; they have been made with the intention of helping people to navigate an extremely troublesome time. Without wanting to sound corny or trite, these organisations have pledged to do something for the greater good, choosing compassion over cash.

But, of course, where there is good there must also be bad. At a time when the prevailing narrative is one of supporting thy neighbour and promoting empathy wherever possible, there are still people very much unwilling to support this message.

Bad boys for life

Let’s begin – to the surprise of absolutely nobody – with the self-absorbed owner of Newcastle United, Michael James Wallace Ashley. 

Ashley, it would seem, is a man determined to be on the wrong side of history. First, he claimed that his Sports Direct chain was ‘extremely important’ to the people of the UK and should be allowed to stay open throughout the crisis, despite government calls for all non-essential stores to shut their doors. His plea was, as many people suggested, not only poorly timed, but also somewhat hypocritical: you’d think that, if he genuinely considered exercise to be vital, he would have bothered to partake in some form of it during his many adult years.  

Then, after a tsunami of backlash, he turned on his heel and admitted that he was in the wrong, confirming that he would, after all, shut his stores and also pay employees in full until the end of April. You’d think this would be a pretty good time for the loathsome oaf to cut his losses and stay away from the limelight for a little bit, but no: instead, he decided to increase the price of some Sports Direct products by as much as 50 percent, ensuring that items he had so recently declared ‘essential’ became, overnight, far less obtainable for millions of people. 

Surely, you would think, at this point he has done enough to cement himself as the country’s leading cartoon villain, but no! While other Premier League clubs – Arsenal, Aston Villa, Brighton, Burnley, Chelsea, Leicester, to name just a few – were issuing press releases stating that they would continue to pay non-playing staff full salaries for as long as possible, Ashley was rubbing his hands at the prospect of placing the club’s employees – players aside – on furlough. Rather than be paid by the club, staff have been told they must apply to the Government Retention Scheme to attain 80 percent of their wages, while the players and first-team coaches continue to bring home full salaries.

It is very easy to single out Ashley – he is, after all, a man entirely unafraid to sink to new depths – but he is, unfortunately, not alone when it comes to regarding footballers as superior to non-playing employees. Tottenham Hotspur, the team I have supported for my entire adult life, has also chosen to make decisions that have left football fans – regardless of club affiliation – shaking their heads. Enter cartoon villain number two: Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy.

Levy, whose name is routinely followed by words such as ‘uncompromising’ and ‘inflexible’, also moved rapidly to reduce the wages of 550 non-playing staff by 20 percent, placing some of them on furlough in the process. 

However, what is perhaps even more damning is that on the very same day this decision was announced, it emerged that Levy had earned £7m in bonuses in the last financial year. Decisions around cutting back on staff earnings to ensure the long-term prosperity of the club, it would seem, do not extend to the boardroom.

This decision has caused major unrest amongst Tottenham fan groups – including the respected Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust – who have openly called for Levy to make a personal contribution to ensure that the club’s employees do not encounter financial troubles in the coming weeks and months. Levy’s actions have also riled up MPs, with one – Julian Knight, MP for Solihull – suggesting that football clubs operate in a ‘moral vacuum’.

However, in the interests of balance and fairness, it is worth highlighting that Mr Knight once wrote a book offering advice on how to hide money from tax collectors, while also stating that ‘from an inheritance tax avoidance point of view, you might find it pays to leave dear old Blighty’. Kudos to the Guardian’s Marina Hyde for calling out Knight’s brazen hypocrisy.

“On a personal level, I have never felt less represented by an entity that I have spent years supporting, to the extent that I almost feel ashamed to declare myself a Tottenham Hotspur fan, and am on the cusp of distancing myself from the sport entirely.

All about the money

I have become increasingly disillusioned with the state of modern football in recent years: the billionaire owners, the ever-tightening association with gambling, and the increased focus on mega-money TV deals have only served to make the sport less likeable.

Fans – those people whose passion the game would be nothing without – are, essentially, being continually pushed further and further down the priority list, only regarded as valuable for as long as they’re pumping their hard-earned cash into the club they adore. 

Football has, for the majority of its existence, been a sport for the everyman. It has been a means of gathering with likeminded folk to support an establishment that thinks beyond the game itself, that acts as a community hub, that offers a distraction from the stresses and strains associated with the, quote-unquote, real world. For many, it is still capable of providing an escape, but for others it has simply become yet another avenue via which shrewd businesspeople can top up their pension funds. 

People like Mike Ashley have, for years, shown that they care not for the fans, so should we be surprised that he and those like him have been so quick to hang their employees out to dry? Are we the ones truly at fault for thinking that individuals like Ashley could ever bring themselves to look beyond money? He, and other billionaires, have accrued their wealth by being ruthless and by putting their own desires above all else, so why does it still rankle when they act in the same manner that they have always acted? 

That Ashley and Levy have declared players to be more worthy than other club employees is in no way surprising, but the fact that such decision-making is completing in keeping with their general modus operandi is, if anything, more disheartening. 

On the offensive

I think, at this point, that I should make absolutely clear that my issue is with the clubs, not with the players themselves. Top-level footballers are, indeed, paid millions of pounds to kick a football around on a bit of grass, but this does not mean that they should be pressured into giving up a percentage of their earnings so as to ‘contribute to the fight against coronavirus’, as has been suggested by Health Secretary Matt Hancock. 

Hancock, who is speaking on behalf of a government that has spent years failing to adequately fund the NHS, and has in recent weeks continually provided misleading information around when it will provide ventilators, antibody tests and PPE for frontline workers, is undeniably guilty of using footballers as a scapegoat, and that strikes me not only as cowardly, but verges close to unacceptable. 

Why is he pointing the finger at footballers rather than, say, multi-billionaires such as Richard Branson, whose Virgin healthcare firm has never paid any tax in the UK? Estimates suggest that there are 2.4 million millionaires in the UK, so why is Hancock focusing his energies solely on footballers? Why not concentrate on property magnates, investors, hedge fund executives, tech entrepreneurs, bankers or, heaven forbid, football club owners? 

He has also conveniently failed to mention the various altruistic efforts of footballers. Marcus Rashford, for example, has helped raise enough money to feed 400,000 children. Gary Neville has opened his hotels free of charge to help health workers. Belgian footballers Toby Alderweireld and Simon Mignolet have donated thousands of tablets to hospitals. Gary Lineker has donated £300,000 to the Red Cross. Neymar has handed UNICEF over £750,000. Pep Guardiola has donated 1m euros to be divided between numerous charities and good causes. Manchester United players have declared they will donate 30 percent of a month’s wages to the NHS, a figure which estimates suggest could equal close to £8m. I could go on.

Footballers are, and for years have been, an easy target. The abounding rhetoric is that they are overpaid for what they do, and while this is of course open to debate, it is a bandwagon that is incredibly straightforward to clamber upon. Hancock has, as befits his past conduct, chosen to ignore the real issue in favour of trying to score cheap points.

In an ideal world, everyone with money to spare would be eager to donate it to the NHS during this time. However, in an ideal world, the NHS would already be provided with the equipment, staff and training to be able to deal with such a pandemic, regardless of how unprecedented it may be. 

This crisis will, eventually, come to an end, and when we are given the time to sit back and reflect, it is certain that some people will be able to look back with a degree of pride. However, what is also certain is that the actions of an egocentric minority will not be forgotten, and if karma is willing to play a role, they will be tarnished and shunned.

Joe Phelan would, if you asked him, declare himself to be a Tottenham fan, but what he likes more than anything is the controversy, drama, and spectacle that surrounds the beautiful game. Follow: @acedece

Main image: Sasha Taylor