Rooney: role model for another sort of striker

The United star’s hard bargaining shows we shouldn’t meekly accept the crumbs from the bosses’ table.

Neil Davenport

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‘Wayne Rooney is a role model for all that is rotten in Britain’, roared the Daily Express after the Manchester United star finally signed a new contract that bagged him £180,000 per week – a 100 per cent rise on his former weekly wage.

An Observer columnist reckoned that the striker was a symbol of the financial speculation culture that has ‘laid us all low’. Also in recession-baiting mode, the Independent contrasted the lavish wealth of ‘Wayne’s World’ with ‘the real world’ of benefit cuts, soaring unemployment and impending austerity. Another commentator called for the introduction of a ‘Rooney tax’ (to be levied against very high earners). Rooney might be having a rest from the pitch out in sunny Dubai, but it seems he’s still busy attacking Britain’s moral defences and encouraging the greed-is-good antics of City wideboys on the stock market. With such miraculous powers of influence, I’m beginning to wonder whether his salary is that inflated after all.

There are, of course, plenty of problems with the acres of press that Rooney’s will-he-won’t-he drama generated. It would be far better to concentrate minds on the calamitous prospect of some half-a-million people being made redundant than waste valuable column inches on the latest Premier League debacle. Let’s leave Rooney’s financial affairs for the back pages and the football supplements. But it’s another thing entirely when Rooney’s pay rise is used as a blunderbuss by moral entrepreneurs keen to highlight how today’s football players are symbolic of the corrupting influence of both the modern game and modern society. Even worse is the insistence that, in a time of crippling economic crisis, Rooney’s pay rise is somehow an insult to everybody else struggling with wage cuts, as if football stars should act as philanthropists towards public-sector workers currently being laid off.

In this sense at least, I’d argue that Rooney is actually a role model for anyone who believes they should haggle for more, rather than settle for less, from their employers. Rooney rightly doesn’t give a damn about the shaky profit margins of United’s owners and, as the best player in the country, he believes he should be paid more on that basis alone. That’s a far healthier attitude to have than agreeing to work free for a month, accept pay cuts and kowtow to employer diktat with mumbling agreement, as many thousands of workers have resorted to doing in the current economic crisis. If there’s one person whose actions suggest we can tell David Cameron – with his ‘we’re all in this together’ line – to fuck right off, it’s Our Wayne.

Rooney’s unabashed self-interest has upset both right- and left-wing commentators. He is simply refusing to take on board the culture of austerity that everybody has been promoting these past two years.

By demanding more, he reminds me a little of another section in society who are continually attacked for daring to fight for more pay, who apparently have a cushy number and whose salaries should, according to many middle-class journalists, be closer to those of part-time cleaners than full-time teachers: London Underground workers. For Britain’s hard-working scribes, it is apparently an outrage that these ‘push button operatives’ enjoy the same salary as a nice professional does. Launching a tirade against a millionaire footballer might seem a vaguely radical proposition, but it’s not that different to when striking workers are also attacked for being greedy and financially irresponsible.

Attacking Rooney’s immense affluence is simply a continuation of the poverty-can-be-good-for-you line peddled by numerous commentators, but having a go at a sporting millionaire isn’t as obviously in bad taste as criticising a Tube driver. By railing against Rooney’s pay rise and his luxury getaway to Dubai this week, columnists reinforce the notion that we should all – not just the Premier League’s elite – settle for less. The Independent may drag out pictures of recession-hit Britain, but attacking the acquisition of wealth implies that nobody should ask for more. It is precisely the dominance of such low horizons that means millions accept whatever their employers or the government throw at them.

Of course, there is a lot of predictable, old-fashioned snobbery against Rooney, too. There’s a lot of angry noise that a ‘thick Scouser’ like Rooney earns so much cash in the first place. Funny, the Express never complains when those Richmond Tories, the Rolling Stones, accumulate millions of pounds by going on yet another overpriced world tour. Sir Mick & Co. trousering yet more millions is not seen as worthy of comment, but Rooney is described as ‘petulant and aggressive… like a giant toddler, devoid of any empathy, cocooned in the narrow world of his own desires. Indeed, Rooney is a potent symbol of a modern football culture that is filled with a childish sense of entitlement.’ In other words, individual behaviour and decadence – as exemplified by Rooney and other footballers – are to blame for society’s moral and even economic decline. As shots on goals go, these are ill-placed and massively off-target.

It is, however, regrettable that the worst recession in 30 years is sidelined by Rooney’s financial moves off the pitch (although that’s hardly his fault). It is even more deplorable that the victims of the current recession should be wheeled out only to justify that everybody keeps their heads down, tightens their belts and works in the national interest. Attacking Rooney’s massive pay rise is simply a subtler way of saying that poverty is the antidote to decadence and therefore is good for us. Forget millionaire footballers, if there’s anything that sums up all that is rotten in Britain, it is these backward assaults on wealth.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He will be speaking in the debate Are we still a classless society, Mr Cameron? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Sunday 31 October.

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