‘Obscene’ wages for all!

Ignore the chav-bashing moralists with a snobby aversion to trophy wives and Mock Tudor homes - it's great that footballers are being paid £150,000 a week.

Duleep Allirajah

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What’s your definition of obscene? In olden days it was a glimpse of stocking, as Cole Porter put it. These days we’re a bit more permissive. Not quite ‘anything goes’ though. Some things like necrophilia or bestiality are still beyond the bounds of decency for most of us. Personally I find it quite difficult watching Casualty while eating my dinner, but that’s more a question of squeamishness on my part.

While prudish attitudes towards sex might have loosened up, moralism is very much alive, albeit focusing its attentions elsewhere. Sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe, for instance, thinks that footballers’ wages are obscene. The hitherto anonymous Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) minister ruffled a few feathers recently with his comments about England captain and Chelsea player John Terry’s salary. ‘Good luck to John Terry but I think it is obscene to be on £150,000 a week’, said Sutcliffe. ‘People in the street cannot understand salaries like that.’

Obscene? Does Sutcliffe know something we don’t about sordid sexual practices involving wads of banknotes? I suspect not. Sutcliffe’s comments appear to have been a fairly shameless attempt to court popularity with those who think money is ruining football. I expect he thought it would play well with those mythical creatures, the ‘traditional fans’ (think cloth cap, big rosette, wooden rattle, packet of woodbines), as well as self-loathing middle-class fans who feel terrible about the way that traditional cloth caps types have been displaced by, well, self-loathing middle-class fans like them.

The idea that footballers are paid too much is a common gripe. Noreena Hertz’s Mayday for Nurses campaign is a good illustration (1). When she launched the campaign, Hertz insisted that she wasn’t blaming footballers for the plight of nurses but merely wanted to enlist them for their PR value. ‘I would like to see footballers play the part that rock stars did with Live Aid’, said Hertz. Her aim was to get Premiership footballers to donate a day’s pay to a nurses’ hardship fund in order to highlight their poor wages.

But when some footballers failed to cough up, Mayday for Nurses soon turned into a Let’s Bash Footballers campaign. Middlesborough manager Gareth Southgate was quite rightly incensed when Hertz threatened to name and shame players who hadn’t donated. ‘I am disgusted with the manner in which this campaign has gone about its fundraising’, said Southgate. ‘I think it’s outrageous that the campaign’s fundraising style has bordered on blackmail, with the message being basically “give us your money or we’ll publicly shame you”.’

Footballers’ salaries have become a convenient Aunty Sally these days, but, if you start to unpick it, the charge that players are paid too much is pretty vacuous. Too much in comparison to what? Are they paid more than they are worth? If you think so, how would you go about defining the ‘value’ of a footballer? It’s as meaningless as trying to define the value of a Van Gogh painting or an embalmed Damien Hirst shark. Footballers, like pieces of art, aren’t ordinary commodities. The ‘going rate’ for star footballers is determined by how much club proprietors are prepared to spend in order to achieve success. If it takes a six-figure weekly wage to keep their talismanic captain at Stamford Bridge, then that’s what he’s worth.

Gerry Sutcliffe seems to be suggesting that John Terry’s wages make bad business sense for his club. ‘Chelsea are £250million in the red and they may be able to cope with that but it’s not the real world’, said Sutcliffe. ‘£250million in the red is not sustainable.’ Well maybe it isn’t if you’re a normal business, but Chelsea FC is not a normal business. Nor indeed is it a typical football club. It’s owned by one of the richest men on the planet, Roman Abramovich, and when you consider his personal wealth then Chelsea’s losses clearly are sustainable.

Some would argue that Terry’s high salary helps to fuel wage inflation in the wider football market. So, while Chelsea can afford to pay well, clubs of lesser means desperately trying to play catch-up might overstretch themselves. Well yes that might happen. It did happen, in fact, to my club Crystal Palace under the disastrous reign of Mark Goldberg. But if club chairmen are stupid enough to pay silly wages for useless players then it’s their financial mismanagement that’s at fault, not money-grabbing footballers.

Are footballers paid too much when compared to ‘people in the street’? They’re obviously paid a lot more than nurses or postal workers or call-centre operatives. But then, they’re not like normal employees. They’re more akin to pop stars or film stars who are also highly remunerated. We don’t hear DCMS ministers complaining that the amount that film stars or pop stars earn is obscene. So why is it all right to have a pop at footballers?

Sutcliffe’s use of the word ‘obscene’ is the clue to understanding what’s really beneath all this. It isn’t really an economic argument at all; it’s essentially a moral complaint. There are several messages being conveyed here. Firstly, footballer’s wages are seen as emblematic of the ills of commercialism which is supposedly corrosive of the very ethos of sport. Distaste for commercialism is an old toff prejudice that has found a new lease of life since TV money helped fuel the revitalisation of English football in the 1990s. Some people evidently haven’t got over the fact that the maximum wage has gone and footballers no longer take the bus to the stadium.

Secondly, and closely entwined with this latter-day Corinthianism, is the recasting of a rather old-fashioned snobbish disdain for the vulgarity of the nouveau riche. The subtext here is that chav millionaires, with their diamond earrings, gas-guzzling 4x4s, trophy girlfriends and Mock Tudor mansions simply don’t have the breeding to cope with their new wealth.

Finally, there’s the pie question. Ask yourselves this: why should you or I be bothered about the size of John Terry’s pay packet? The answer, my friend, is baking in the oven. The traditional terrace chant ‘Who ate all the pies?’ might be dying out as modern footballers adopt new dietary regimes. However, the metaphorical pie is very much bubbling and steaming. The unspoken subtext in the footballers-are-overpaid discussion is that there’s only so much pie to go round. Consequently, if greedy footballers are helping themselves to a super-size slice, it means there’s less for the rest of us.

This is a profoundly conservative sentiment. I’m reminded of an old left-wing slogan (in the days when being left-wing meant demanding more not asking people to rein in consumption or recycle their shit). It went: ‘We don’t want a bigger slice of the pie, we want the whole bakery.’ It still sounds like a pretty good operating principle to me. It would mean that John Terry can have a bigger slice but so too can the nurses, postal workers, call-centre staff, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. I suppose some miserable sod might complain about the carbon emissions from the bakery, but, hey, you can’t please everyone.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on: spiked issue sport

(1) See Give Mayday for Nurses the red card, by Duleep Allirajah

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