Amid all the fevered reaction to the national GDP-sized English Premier League (EPL) TV deal for 2016-2019, one article particularly activated my bile duct. It wasn’t from a usual suspect, either. No Martin Samuel little-Englander/Francophile nonsense. No mainstream Scottish media straight-down-the-line lying. But the Independent newspaper’s hitherto inoffensive and, in my opinion, highly-readable Tom Peck, in his column last Saturday. Peck eschewed all calls for football’s multi-millions to help football’s “grassroots” (a heavily-ironic description, given the state of so many park pitches, where actual grassroots would be a start). The grassroots, and the call to reduce EPL ticket prices, got mere name-checks in his diatribe.
Meanwhile, the “living wage” didn’t even get that, despite the focus of many responses to the TV deal being EPL clubs’ almost universal reluctance to pay it and EPL chief executive Richard Scudamore’s cowardly, morally repugnant denial that he could force them to do so. Peck argued that EPL players will earn whatever salary they get after the new SKY and BT Sport billions arrive, because they “have made it to the very top of the toughest and most ruthless meritocracy out there.” He added, just in case your eyes needed another disbelieving rub, that “yes, they just kick a ball about but they deserve it.” He dismissed opposition to this as “all the old arguments being trotted out again” and a hankering after a “return to the good old days.” Opponents’ wish list included “jamming into death-trap terraces in order to cheerfully beat the crap out of one another” and players eating “a fry-up before the match and quite often going on the piss with journalists afterwards.” And the advent of the EPL in 1992 was when “Rupert Murdoch came along with his satellite dishes and connived a way to turn the nation’s favourite sport into his own personal, gigantic, rustling money nest.” Peck was paraphrasing, you may say. Actually, he was making it up.
People may fondly “remember” the days “when it cost less than the price of a cup of tea” to watch games. But it is a huge leap from nostalgia for the few good bits of “the good old days” to wanting a return to them. It is dishonest and preposterous to present these “good old days” as the sole alternative to the modern day. And it is more dishonest and preposterous still to ignore the morally AND economically sound arguments of journalists and football supporters for the new billions to benefit everyone in the game at all levels. Indeed, Peck’s arguments had me scanning the first letters of each paragraph and sentence in case they spelled out “Scudamore is a knobhead,” thereby exposing the whole article as cleverly-constructed satire. They didn’t.
In his famous 1992 best-seller Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby wrote: “We have forgotten that football crowds are still astonishingly large, mostly because since the war they have become progressively smaller.” Now it appears we have forgotten how “astonishingly large” players’ salaries are, mostly because since TV deals went stratospheric, they have become progressively larger. We have reached the point where the figures have no meaning in their normal context. Outrage at £10,000 weekly wages in the EPL is comfortably within my living memory. Yet now, £275,000-per-week barely qualifies as “eye-catching” or the, presumably, higher level “eye-watering” (“Do your eyes water when they behold something huge or shocking?” asked Guy Keleny, elsewhere in last Saturday’s Independent. “Mine don’t.”).
I recall the disbelief which greeted photos of what purported to be the then-Manchester City player Carlos Tevez’s March 2010 payslip. His net pay was £408,397.27 (actually, my eyes ARE watering at that), the sort of figure I’d have reported to my management (I worked at a government pay centre for years) if it appeared on my payslip, lest I be accused of arranging an “honest mistake” with a decimal point. Yaya Toure, he of the mediocre African Cup of Nations and hissy fit over the birthday cake-shaped hole in Manchester City’s affections for him, is on at least TWICE that amount now. Which is surely deep into the realms of money that he cannot physically spend, let alone need, without reverting to pure kitsch in every aspect of his existence (witness the recently-published pictures of Andy Carroll relaxing at home).
Peck makes a good case for what I’ve often found anomalous in football clubs’ wage structures, where workers often earns more than bosses. He is right that top players (or “top, top players” as TV pundits appear contracted to describe them) deserve the top money, “because…it doesn’t matter who you are, or who you know, it matters solely how good you are.” The same cannot be said for top managers – a point currently being made in my mind’s eye by the image of Bryan Robson. Peck is right too that some have been “propelled from unimaginable poverty to unimaginable wealth by talent alone.” He cites current flavours of the (hundreds of thousands of pounds per) month Diego Costa and Alexis Sanchez – touching on another issue, the on-field desire of such players compared to English counterparts for whom unimaginable poverty is not being eligible for the mansion tax.
But he is only right to the extent that players’ salaries are remotely commensurate with the actual work that they do, or the money that their actual talent actually earns. The top, top clubs who pay the top, top salaries also run up top, top debts, despite the TV billions. And would Wayne Rooney have been less inclined to make that lung-busting run into the Preston box, to facilitate the dive which won him a penalty, if his hourly rate was £1,784 rather than £1,786? Would he even notice if Manchester United’s payroll department surreptitiously made an “honest mistake” which transferred enough of his money to ensure that all United staff were paid at least the living wage of £7.85 per hour?
The answer, I’d stake the amount Rooney has “earned” since I started typing that last paragraph, is no. And rather than labelling opponents of excessive salaries as advocates for the return of the maximum wage, Peck would have better made his point if he could economically justify EPL clubs’ pay scales from top to bottom. He might find it informative to try. The proverbial ship has sailed, of course, regarding the repulsive Scudamore and moral arguments. Yet even for him his comment that the EPL “was not set up for charitable purposes” was appalling. Equating the payment of a living wage to “charity” is all-too-indicative of his moral bankruptcy.
Scudamore’s well-documented media friends served him well again last week, Peck included. And when faced with a rare exception, such as Justin Webb on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Scudamore was pathetic. Asked whether EPL clubs not paying the living wage was “a good idea or a bad one”, he replied: “There’s a thing called the living wage but there’s also a minimum wage, and politicians do have the power to up that minimum wage. That’s entirely for the politicians to do.” Like Chancellor George Osborne being questioned on the wisdom of the deficit and replying that it exists but that Blackburn Rovers are also in debt and it’s entirely for them to deal with it. When Webb suggested that “you think it is right that some people are only paid the minimum wage” when players could earn “potentially up to half-a-million pounds per week,” Scudamore claimed that paying “the talent… disproportionately high” salaries was a reality of the “entertainment industry,” including the BBC itself, as if Webb was on half-a-million-a-week. The snort of derision that argument received was way too kind. If Scudamore wanted clubs to pay the living wage, he would find a way to do it. Yet when Webb wondered “whether you want these things to happen,” Scudamore avoided the issue.
Chelsea are the one EPL club paying the living wage as a minimum to all staff. But it’s unlikely that other clubs will willingly take a significant initiative. Celtic happily trades on its origins as a club set-up specifically to benefit the impoverished Glasgow Irish community. But they are fighting heavy pressure from shareholders and fans to implement the living wage. Expect EPL clubs to largely follow suit. And expect such attitudes to prevail at the “top, top” clubs while there are journalists like Peck prepared to say openly that “footballers who have fabulous wealth have earned it.”
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