Football of ethics: COVID-19 and the football community’s response

By Les Crang

Rosencrantz: Shouldn’t we be doing something–constructive?

Guildenstern: What did you have in mind? … A short, blunt human pyramid…?”

Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Having discussed the possible changing nature of football in a previous post, with Christoph, I was interested in how the football community has reacted to this pandemic so far. This follow up is to look at just that.

In looking at the UK football community, I’ve divided this into what I consider to be the macro and micro issues. The macro issues are those things, for example, that the Premier League, its football clubs and players collectively are doing. Whilst the micro relate to individual actions, smaller clubs or support groups. As with anything like this they can be pretty binary depending on your viewpoint, in that they can either be seen as ethically good or bad.

On the macro-level, one can see how football has been used to create tension, with politicians and the British press stirring up a sense of us and them in their approach to PR around Covid 19. For example, the negative press coverage of players such as Jack Grealish who wrote off his Range Rover on a Sunday after visiting a friend (Moyes, 2020), or Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, feeling footballers should take a pay cut (de Menezes, 2020) and more recently Health Secretary of State, Matt Hancock saying the same:-

While both Grealish’s actions and footballers’ earnings (in the top divisions) may be seen as extreme, it feels rather odd that both the press and politicians are focussing blame on certain individuals rather than debating arguably more fundamental issues like the impact of the austerity measures of the last 10 years of Tory rule. Or indeed the speed and nature of the UK Government response to the pandemic. As Ryan (2020) said in her Guardian article:-

But a focus on blaming the public risks letting the government – the party with power, resources and reach – off the hook. There is a middle ground, however. It is possible to think adults have a personal responsibility to consider their high-risk neighbours while believing the government has heavily influenced their failure to do so by poor communication and slow action.

Ironically, some of this rebuke towards footballers was likely to have been prompted by Tottenham’s furloughing of 550 staff, including chairman Levy, to cope with the impact of coronavirus (Hall, 2020). They were not alone. Liverpool, for example, did the same but quickly back peddled under pressure from fans. Many people felt the burden should fall on the players (Gallagher, 2020).

In the wake of this criticism of footballers for not taking wage reductions to assist lesser paid staff, some Premier League clubs have asked players to take a 30% wage drop (Conn, 2020).  Jordan Henderson has also now set up the Premier League coronavirus fund for the NHS (Hunter, 2020).

Some have questioned why footballers have been singled out for attention among the country’s wealthy. The Conservative Government choosing to lay, or arguably deflect,  blame at the feet of a predominantly working class sport is not an uncommon thing. At the start of World War 1, the prominent rugby union writer E. H. D. Sewell said in 1915 he hoped that football would :-

Remain the exercise of the munitions workers who suffer so much from varicose veins, weak knees, cod-eyed toes, fowl’s livers and a general dislike for a man’s duty. (Goldblatt, 2008)

The reason being that football was played for the whole season of 1914-5, ending with what was termed the Khaki final between Chelsea and Sheffield United (Slater, 2015).

Much had been written in the press and by commentators about the mercenary men still playing football. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, also opposed the Football League’s decision to continue, arguing that players should have been joining the war effort. “If a footballer has strength of limb, let them march and serve in battle,” (Foster, 2020). Though a number of players had already signed-up.

Football, seen as a working class sport, with players portrayed as lazy youths earning huge wages whilst the country suffers, is a good means of blaming ‘the other’ (Taylor, 2015).  Some have pointed out that the former company of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Somerset Capital Management, in which he holds 15% shares, has told investors they could make ‘super normal returns’ during Covid-19 from fluctuating stocks (Butler, 2020). This, and the behaviour of other hedge funds, hasn’t received the same level of political or media attention.

On the micro level, clubs and fans have pitched in. We’ve seen a multitude of things, from supporting food banks to assisting with the physical and mental wellbeing of communities.

Examples include Peter Moore, CEO of Liverpool FC, offering the assistance of the club’s stewards at supermarkets and with the elderly (Media, 2020). £12,000 for a food bank  raised by 3 Leeds United fans by playing football manager for 24 hours (Gardner, 2020). London based football centric “Golazio’ pizzeria organising virtual football quizzes to keep people supported and connected; read mental health awareness as well as raising funds for charity Cambridge House (Quarantine Football Quiz, 2020).

United Glasgow are a community club who describe their mission in the following way:-

Our two guiding principles when we started our project were anti-discrimination and financial inclusion.  (Our Story — United Glasgow F.C. Official, 2020)

They have created  bi-weekly training sessions on instagram, with live screenings for training and fitness exercises for its user base and beyond (http://instagram.com/unitedglasgowfootballclub, 2020), to assist with people’s health and fitness whilst in quarantine.

There are many more examples of micro level activities being carried out by football clubs for the benefit of society during the lockdown. Perhaps it’s more convenient for the Government to raise a disapproving voice about EPL player wages than to reflect on the actions of a wider footballing community?

#playtogether brought about by Liverpool FC captain, Jordan Henderson says its objective is to:-

Raise as much as possible and to get the money, as soon as humanly possible, to NHS charities. The funding will be used to assist NHS staff and volunteers, providing them with food, overnight essentials and furniture for rest rooms. (Mee, 2020)

This high profile campaign prompted Matt Hancock to tweet:-

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Warmly welcome this big-hearted decision from so many Premier League footballers to create <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/PlayersTogether?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#PlayersTogether</a&gt; to support NHS Charities. You are playing your part. <a href=”https://t.co/JGukLwRWJh”>pic.twitter.com/JGukLwRWJh</a></p>&mdash; Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) <a href=”https://twitter.com/MattHancock/status/1247988653319761921?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>April 8, 2020</a></blockquote> https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

For me, the community of local clubs and fans has been the most interesting and positive aspect of Covid 19. But football has lost a lot that we hold dear. Not just the game, the drinks, the banter and the pure disappointment of wasted hours pouring over the game. The loss of our fans too.

Last week we received the news that David Roland had died from Covid 19. Many of us may not recognise his name. Roland was the man seen crying with a Liverpool scarf around his arm after the Hillsborough disaster, surrounded by the debris of the day (Odonski, 2020). It took over 20 years for Liverpool fans to be vindicated in court. At least in part because the Conservative Government at the time had no interest in working class sport (Tempany, 2020).

How long before we get an inquest into Covid 19 and the reasons for the demise of so many predominantly working class people (Prose, 2020)?

References

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