Give ‘Mayday for Nurses’ the red card
A patronising campaign encouraging Premiership footballers to hand over a day’s wage to hard-up nurses should be kicked into touch.
I’m usually the first person to defend the indefensible when it comes to footballers behaving badly. In fact, more often that not, I’m the only person defending them. Joey Barton flashing his arse at Everton fans: what’s the big deal? Gary Neville provocatively kissing his badge in front of the Liverpool fans: three cheers for a bit of passion. A mass brawl between Arsenal and Chelsea players: bring it on! But now that footballers are doing something worthy for a change – in this instance donating a day’s wages to hard-up nurses – I find myself having to reproach the irreproachable.
The ‘Mayday for Nurses’ campaign is the brainchild of Noreena Hertz, the poster girl of the British anti-globalisation movement (1). Hertz is asking Premiership footballers to donate a day’s salary to a hardship fund for nurses. On the face of it, it’s a win-win situation for both footballers and nurses. Footballers get a chance to show that they are not just money-grabbing prima donnas and nurses get some much-needed financial assistance. What’s not to like about the campaign?
Well, sorry to rain on your parade, Noreena, but I don’t think this campaign does health workers any favours, nor will it stop the media bashing footballers for being overpaid. Instead, the campaign captures very well the low horizons and mealy-mouthed nature of today’s radical politics.
The scale of footballers’ salaries has become a national preoccupation in Britain. Footballers’ ‘fat cat’ wages are seen as symptomatic of the commercialism and greed that many feel is corroding the spirit of the game. Last year England left-back Ashley Cole became a universal hate figure for snubbing Arsenal’s £55,000-a-week pay offer. In his autobiography, Cole described how, when his agent phoned him with Arsenal’s offer, he was ‘incensed’, ‘trembling with anger’ and ‘nearly swerved off the road’. As a consequence of his rather ill-advised memoir, he has been branded ‘Cashley Cole’ and taunted by opposition fans waving banknotes at him.
This season West Ham’s relegation plight has been blamed on the ‘Baby Bentley culture’ amongst the players, with club captain Nigel Reo-Coker singled out for particular vilification. Perhaps mindful of the need to repair his damaged reputation, Reo-Coker, whose mother was a nurse, has been vocal in his support for Hertz’s campaign. ‘I think it’s a tremendous cause,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. ‘I would like to see footballers play the part that rock stars did with Live Aid.’
But will Reo-Coker’s conspicuous compassion silence the Upton Park boo-boys? Opinions amongst West Ham fans on the Knees up Mother Brown message board were mixed. Some fans welcomed the gesture but others saw it as a cynical publicity stunt. ‘I can’t help but not be convinced by him’, said one sceptic. ‘It always sounds like he’s been told what to say, as if he’s rehearsed the lines that his agent or PR man has given him just before he goes on. He comes across as a phoney.’ Other fans were similarly unimpressed. ‘Doesn’t wash with me NRC you lazy fuckin c*nt’, opined one supporter bluntly. ‘I would sooner 11 nurses turned out for West Ham and NRC and Co. were making beds and emptying bed pans’, quipped another. One disgruntled fan admitted that, ‘It’s got to the point where I actually hate 95 per cent of our players. Mr Reo-Coker is one of them.’ (2)
I reckon Hertz’s campaign will only serve to reinforce the view that footballers are paid too much. As one contributor to the Knees up Mother Brown discussion thread put it, ‘Nurses are undervalued? Presumably, the implied corollary is “And footballers are overvalued”?’ The ‘Mayday for Nurses’ appeal aims to raise £1.5million which, according to Hertz, is what all 556 Premiership footballers earn in a single day – in other words, loose change for footballers could alleviate hardship for thousands of nurses.
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While it appears to be better PR than those notorious tabloid tales of Premiership stars burning banknotes or running up six-figure gambling debts, the call for players to redistribute some of their wealth to the nurses carries an implicit message: that footballers’ inflated earnings and nurses’ poverty are connected; that footballers are, in some way, responsible for the nurses’ penury. This captures today’s widespread idea that there is only so much wealth to share around, and that it is the fault of the overpaid or the ‘greedy’ that others are having to go without. Some radicals have moved from demanding that we should all have more - more jobs, more wealth, better pay - to demanding that some of us should have less and should share our wealth with others. This seems to be underpinned by a fairly fatalistic view of society and wealth creation, where there is apparently only so much pie to go around. A lack of vision and ambition means that calling for belt-tightening passes for radicalism today.
Why the focus on footballers? Footballers are, without doubt, remunerated quite handsomely – but are they paid too much? If you compare footballers’ wages to those of a nurse or a firefighter then obviously the disparity appears absurd and unfair. But when compared to other high-profile celebrities like film stars or pop stars, footballers’ pay doesn’t seem particularly excessive. Indeed, if you look at the earnings of the top US sports stars, you can see that British footballers are only now starting to enjoy comparable financial rewards to their sporting counterparts on the other side of the pond. Tiger Woods, the world’s richest sportsman, earned $11.9million last year in tournament prize money while American gridiron star Nate Clements is reportedly trousering a tasty $10million a year.
So why are footballers singled out for criticism over their wage packets as opposed to, say, movie actors? Scratch the surface of the gripe that footballers are overpaid and you’ll find a very old-fashioned prejudice that working class arrivistes lack the breeding to cope with their newfound wealth. If they’re not frittering the money away on the nags or high-stakes poker games then they’re flaunting it on diamond-encrusted earrings, flashy sports cars, gaudy Mock Tudor mansions, and perma-tanned, shopaholic trophy WAGs. The handwringing over footballers’ pay packets expresses today’s prejudice against consumption, especially against what is seen as vulgar, nouveau riche consumption.
Okay, so maybe the ‘Mayday for Nurses’ campaign isn’t going to stop people sniping at footballers, I hear you say, but at least it’s for a good cause, right? Wrong. Noreena Hertz says, ‘It’s tragic that our nurses have become charity cases in need of a hardship fund’, but her campaign simply reinforces nurses’ reliance on handouts (3). Moreover, her special pleading plays on the stereotypical image of nurses as deserving angels. ‘It is not fair that we exploit the kindness of these women who obviously do want to care and treat them as second-class citizens and don’t reward them for the education they have undertaken and the training they have done’, says Hertz (4). But where does this leave other health workers like hospital porters, radiographers, dieticians, occupational therapists or the swelling ranks of non-professional health workers, such as nursing auxiliaries and healthcare assistants? These workers are all underpaid as well, but they aren’t seen as angels. Are they less deserving?
Hertz acknowledges that ‘footballers single-handedly cannot solve the crisis in nursing’ and that it’s the government’s responsibility to ‘fix the crisis’. However, nurses are still assigned the passive role of helpless victims who need other people to lobby on their behalf. Personally, I can’t see how a PR stunt like the ‘Mayday for Nurses’ campaign is going to deliver real change. Ministers face bad publicity about the National Health Service on a daily basis – and they generally take it on the chin. I don’t believe that a few more negative headlines will embarrass ministers into radically transforming nurses’ pay.
So, my advice to footballers desperately seeking a sense of moral purpose through philanthropy: nurses don’t need pity or handouts; they are perfectly capable of fighting for better pay themselves.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s football columnist.
(1) Mayday for Nurses
(2) Knees up Mother Brown, West Ham FC Online
(3) Footy aces in Mayday for nurses, Sun, 13 March 2007
(4) Footballers back nurses pay campaign, Guardian, 1 March 2007