Don't Blame Footballers for the Government's Failures

EDITION: Bad New Times.

The macro failings of the state, the shortcomings of institutional society and the bigotries of the populace crystallise in the way footballers have been treated during the pandemic.

On March 12, Mikel Arteta, the head coach at Arsenal Football Club, announced that he had tested positive for Coronavirus, five days after leading his team to a 1-0 victory at the Emirates against West Ham. By the time Arteta went public, a number of Arsenal players had already been in self-isolation and games across Europe had been postponed indefinitely. On this same day, Boris Johnson announced that despite lots of sporting fixtures having been postponed or shifted, there was no immediate plan for the government to ban sporting events from taking place. The following day, in an unprecedented move, the Premier League, English Football League and FA led by example and collectively decided to postpone all games until at least April 3rd.

For the week that followed, positive cases in football became widespread. Across the sporting world, governing bodies were demonstrating to a weak-willed Tory government what it meant to put public health before (immediate) profit. Or at least, finally, the risk of mass infections was no longer worth the hassle of continuing with business as usual and the recriminations that might follow.

Arteta’s public revelation moved the mainstream discourse quicker than any action taken by Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, and brought us to a moment where it could be considered that the response to a predictable emergency was sluggish and dangerous. By the time an announcement had been made about an official lockdown on March 23rd, 359 people (at least) had died of the virus, with over 11,000 confirmed cases. From this point onwards, the death toll in England climbed rapidly with almost 7500 people confirmed to have passed away by April 7th, a stark reminder that whilst private businesses had made decisions that limited contact, the lack of a government-led approach had been fatal for so many people.

By the time Johnson and Hancock were presiding over deaths of over 1000 people a day, the conversation shifted dramatically to Premier League footballers, who,until this point had mostly dutifully toed the national line, urging people to stay indoors, participating in viral hand-washing challenges and showing us their shiny homes. Messaging around taking care of each other and the NHS was widespread and whether through a sense of personal responsibility, or gentle encouragement from their employers and sponsors, almost all footballers complied. High profile official transgressions such as those of Dominic Cummings or Neil Ferguson would outweigh the handful of athletes who were caught out.

The collective discourse centred around staying inside, with a focus on a very nebulous sentiment: “unity”. The impact of this was twofold - the onus shifted from demanding a coordinated government response to a public health crisis to demanding individuals follow guidelines that at best, were lax and unclear. although individual compliance and accountability was critical (and remains so), this perspective redirected attention and rage at each other when our singular impact was relatively meaningless in the face of unclear government advice, an underfunded healthcare service and the lack of safeguards to protect the most vulnerable ahead of the economy.

The second thing this did was set professional footballers up, again, as unsuspecting role models - this time in how to handle a global pandemic for which there was no precedent. Their willingness to disseminate government messaging became seen as not just tacit endorsement for the message, but total compliance with the action. And instead of understanding this dissemination for what it was, it became an opportunity to intensify the kind of surveillance Premier League footballers are constantly subjected to via Britain’s tabloid press.

When Jack Grealish was spotted having broken the rules by visiting a friend, the punishment from the general public and his employers was swift, and his apology followed fairly quickly after. The glee with which it was reported was bizarre, as though it is various individual lapses in judgement have taken our national death toll to close to 50,000 people. The issue is not so much that Grealish or Kyle Walker or any other footballer should be exempt from following basic instructions, or from investing in our collective safety to prevent the spread of a deadly virus, but that their failure to do so is considered a greater moral failing because they were involved, cynically or not, in becoming an arm of the Government’s information messaging service.

It also throws up some more complicated questions about the social contract between footballers and the general public - whether they consented to play an active role in the nation’s health, to become vessels for our frustration, or whether this pedestal is punishment for their relative success and wealth as working class men in a country desperate to remind people of their place.

Hancock, in the middle of presiding over the most disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe, then had the temerity to stand up and suggest Premier League footballers “play their part” and take wage cuts. Attempting to shame footballers for a private labour discussion in a public forum backfired - the PFA reiterated the importance of the union and footballers privately came together to form their own initiative, redirecting millions of pounds directly to the NHS. Despite the grotesque image of donating to a charity that effectively supplements a taxpayer funded institution that has been quietly and steadily been defunded, it felt politically and morally stronger than simply returning wages to their employers.

It’s possible to believe that the nature of late capitalism has dictated footballers are paid absurd wages for their labour whilst also believing that they shouldn’t be solely responsible for the redistribution of wealth.

It’s possible to believe that the nature of late capitalism has dictated that footballers, or as we might be better placed to see them, entertainers, are paid absurd wages for their labour whilst also believing that they shouldn’t be solely responsible for the redistribution of wealth. Mostly from working class backgrounds, disproportionately Black, footballers in Britain should not need to carry the weight of our society’s inequality, least of all when it is demanded by the political party that has overseen a decade of austerity, including horrific levels of child poverty, all amongst increasing levels of wealth hoarded by the rich.

In the Johnson produced plan to ease lockdown, the possibility of bringing back sporting events behind closed doors to “provide a much-needed boost to national morale” was floated, with a provisional date of June 1st. Project Restart detailed the practical measures clubs and the Premier League would take to ensure the safe completion of fixtures but was limited to precisely this. Danny Rose was rightfully irate, asking why football was even being considered whilst people were dying in their hundreds every single day. Once again, footballers were expected to bear the brunt of state failures.

Johnson’s demand that footballers “boost morale” was rooted in how we’ve come to consume football and the labour of those who make the game. Footballers have been devoured.

This also brought into sharp focus the strangeness of the role elite footballers are expected to play in the national imagination - Johnson’s demand was rooted in how we’ve come to consume football and the labour of those who make the game. Footballers have been devoured. They are simultaneously expected to be incredible athletes, role models, the nation’s entertainers and its whipping boys. Occupying perhaps the most desired job in the world, footballers are the canvas for our projected fantasies and every single one of our failures.

So, when Troy Deeney and a selection of his teammates, unmoved by the assurances of Watford and the Premier League, withdrew their labour and refused to return to training on the same schedule as everyone else, it was a remarkable move. His assertion that he was concerned about the health of his child and his reminder that Coronavirus had disproportionately impacted BAME people were both examples of how, as backed up by a recent enquiry, they bear the brunt of institutional and direct personal racism.

Disproportionate impacts are not confined to those playing it. Not only are at least 25% of footballers Black, but Black people, along with Asians are mostlikely to be employed in the kind of precarious work that football clubs up and down the country are run on. On the one hand the stopping of matches saw many of those responsible for matchday security, serving of food, and the whole range of work necessary to make football matches possible laid off very rapidly, particularly if employed through agencies rather than directly by clubs. On the other, whilst the restart of football without fans did not require all this work, it still required significant numbers of workers whose work was unconsidered in Project Restart. This lack of consideration was not just alarming but potentially deadly, reinforcing which lives are considered simply expendable, and which are considered expendable in the name of entertainment. That these two things collide, and so often, is the main problem facing professional football in the coming months - how to manage a public health crisis exacerbated by institutional, structural and systemic racism whilst maintaining a grip on a sport that relies on a brief, wilful suspension of misery in order to captivate and delight us.

The timeline of this crisis and how it has played out is barely surprising. The macro failings of the state, the shortcomings of institutional society and the weaknesses of the populace, in terms of bigotries and beliefs, have been manifested in the intricacies of how footballers have been treated and berated. None of this is anything but predictable, only the unexpected arrival of the coronavirus has cast it in a slightly novel light.

These are easily understood machinations, but the questions they raise are less easily answered with practical solutions. We have raised footballers to be the exemplars of capitalist money generation and they are handsomely rewarded for it, at least financially. And yet they are treated with the usual contempt aimed at the working class, with its concurrent racism, and they are never allowed to forget that the establishment regards their enrichment as an aberration of the system. We must move on from a system that sets up footballers and football to be nothing more than a superficial spectacle that almost immediately resents its employees when they attempt to exercise their agency, well-reasoned and founded in social justice. Perhaps what it demonstrates best is that when wealth is accumulated in its billions and trillionaires, even millionaires have limited scope to take on capital.


Sanaa Qureshi

Sanaa lives in London and works in community sport.