Who wants a footballer for a role model?

As long as footballers can deliver the goods on the pitch, we shouldn't care less what they do in their free time.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

We are used to Christmas messages about how drinking and driving wrecks lives. This year in the UK, there’s been an extra public safety message: drunk footballers wreck the moral fabric of society.

In the wake of the Leeds football trial (1), UK culture secretary Tessa Jowell added her voice to a growing chorus of demands for footballers to exercise moral leadership. ‘These players should remember they have become famous because fans admire them and they are role models’, said Jowell.

Today, any player who gets drunk and misbehaves in public risks being branded as one of the ‘bin Ladens of British football’, as Asian peer Lord Dholokia described unruly footballers (surely you can see the moral equivalence between binge-drinking and suicide bombing?). Lee Bowyer, although cleared of causing grievous bodily harm and affray in court, was fined four weeks’ wages by Leeds United, effectively for being drunk in public.

West Ham defender Hayden Foxe was fined two weeks’ wages for urinating on a public bar during the players’ Christmas night out. Ipswich Town’s Titus Bramble was named and shamed in the press after he spent the night in a police cell having fallen asleep in a taxi (whatever will these millionaire brats do next?). And after two of his players were fined for drinking, Manchester City manager Kevin Keegan said, ‘Senior players need to set a better example. It’s time they cleaned up their act’.

According to the Mirror, a number of top football clubs now plan to introduce blood-testing to stamp out the ‘excessive drinking’ that has apparently led to ‘shameful scenes across the country’ (such as young men brazenly falling asleep in taxis). Barclaycard, sponsors of the Premier League, is even scrapping the traditional man-of-the-match bottle of champagne to discourage the booze culture (‘Congratulations Thierry, here’s your magnum of organic carrot juice’).

Footballers should be subject to the law, the same as everybody else. And I would not support anybody pissing on a public bar. But why we should expect our footballers to be role models? As Simon Barnes, football writer for The Times (London), argues: ‘Football itself is neither disgusting nor admirable. It’s just a game, it doesn’t have any pretensions to be a moral force, for good or evil. That’s not its job.’ (2) How refreshing – as they say in that beer advert.

As far as I’m concerned a footballer’s only duty is to perform well on the pitch – period. Should we look to David Beckham or Michael Owen for moral guidance? Certainly not. ‘I’m no role model’, American basketball star Charles Barkley once said. Bringing up children, as Barkley argued, is the job of parents, not of sports stars.

In 1999 Aston Villa manager John Gregory said, ‘I don’t want angels in the team. In fact they can get out of their brains every night as long as they are man of the match on Saturday’. Two years later, with the knives well and truly out for football’s drinking culture, such admirable sentiments would not be tolerated. Of course, standards of physical fitness in British football are now much more exacting and players can no longer drink or eat what they want. And yes, if excessive drinking affects a player’s performance, it is reasonable for the club to discipline him.

But in terms of their personal behaviour, footballers should not be held up as an example – nor should they be made an example of. As long as footballers are fit and able to deliver the goods on the pitch, I couldn’t care less what they do in their free time, and neither should anybody else.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Kicking footballers, by Duleep Allirajah

(2) The Times (London), 24 December 2001

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Topics Politics


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