“Whatever way you look at it, we’re easy targets” wrote Wayne Rooney in his Sunday column addressing why it was easy to turn Premier League players into greedy villains in the debate over whether they should continue to receive full payment while play was suspended. The Premier League requested that players take a 30% pay cut to both sustain the league and set an example of sacrifice for the larger public. Players resisted the demand due to a combination of mistrust and debates over how their finances could best serve society. Rooney said that he would gladly give 30% of his salary to the government if he “knew where the money was going.”
Days earlier, London mayor Sadiq Khan suggested that highly paid football players should forgo their salary “rather than the person selling the programme or the person who does catering.” Health secretary Matt Hancock echoed Khan’s thoughts in saying how Premier League players should take a cue from “the sacrifices people are making.” The narrative was clearly drawn between the supposedly spoiled millionaire athlete who refuses to sacrifice for the greater good, and the average, altruistic citizen.
That Premier League players would eventually have to take some sort of pay cut appeared inevitable without any context. After all, several La Liga, Serie A, and Bundesliga sides took pay cuts early and without friction, especially to ensure its non-playing staff continued to be paid. Of course, it would be crass to conclude that Premier League players don’t care about their club nor the well-being of its staff. Yet had the global nature of the league, with its billion dollar television rights and record-breaking branding campaigns, changed something fundamental in the relationship between players and club?
As Rooney pointed out, it’s never about resources, but about relationships and trust (or a lack of it). That the debate played out over a public space surely did not help matters, as both sides jockeyed to turn the other into the selfish group. The Players Football Association refocused the argument back to the wealth of the Premier League, arguing that cutting player salaries to pay non-playing staff will only “serve the business of the club’s shareholders.” Arsenal players wondered whether club owners and high-paid executives would also take pay cuts.
Looking back over the now almost 30-year existence of the Premier League, was there a moment when all parties began to mistrust each other? It is seemingly a paradox that suspicion increased as Premier League revenues soared into the billions, though one is perhaps a byproduct of the other.
“If feels as if it’s to shame the players - to force them into a corner where they have to pick up the bill for lost revenue,” added Rooney of the public dispute between the Premier League and its players that filtered into other layers of society.
Public shaming is an old tactic, but with new powers in the social media age. The stoppage in play made us deconstruct and rethink an athlete’s place in society. In the meantime, Jordan Henderson picked up the financial slack by organizing a charitable fund for the NHS consisting of donations from all 20 Premier League captains. The hashtag #PlayersTogether ensured a regaining of the narrative on Twitter. Donations would purchase supplies for nurses, hospital furniture, and other tangible, physical assets, contrasting the opaqueness of taking a 30% pay cut.
The public shaming quickly turned from players to clubs. When news of Liverpool’s plans to furlough its staff went public, former players and supporters across the world united in criticizing ownership on social media. In an age of brand savvy, many pointed to discrepancy between the attempts to furlough employees and supporters singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” every weekend. Jamie Carragher said that the behavior was something we should expect from other teams, but not from the club that “built themselves up under their owners as ‘this means more.’”
Liverpool executives were said to be surprised at the vitriolic reaction as they are one of the largest employers in the city, with a right to dip into the public coronavirus fund. That dissonance between public reaction and financial reasoning shows the gap between supporter and business. Lost in the equations are personal emotions and memories. Attempts to furlough staff broke a promise in the magic of treating sports clubs as “family,” fracturing the illusion that supporters exist beyond a spreadsheet. Liverpool also believed that another Premier League side leaked the information, thus creating an age where threats of furloughs are used to damage opponents.
Other Premier League sides experienced a similar public pushback. Tottenham admitted to reversing their decision to furlough non-playing after online criticism. Similar to Liverpool’s explanation, they based their initial decision on sound reasoning: they are a business, and this is how other businesses behaved in order to ensure their future during unprecedented times.
“We bear different pressures to other businesses, many of whom have and will continue to apply for support from the [furlough] scheme as the government intended,” released the club in a statement, with the self-awareness that they mean something “different” and must act outside of the reason of efficiency.
One could feel unease about the public shaming methods that caused clubs to reverse their decisions, even if it achieved an end goal. We implicitly know that clubs are a business, yet we still allow ourselves to be fooled. Sports exist in a nebulous space where personal identity, civic pride, and storytelling meet. It’s a world beyond prudent financial decisions, especially as we’ve built up their myths every weekend, for decades.
Like Liverpool and Tottenham, Bournemouth also reversed their decision to furlough non-playing staff after coming under online criticism. Yet we can see the obvious difference between Bournemouth and their top six counterparts: the club lost $13.7 million during the 2018 season, compared to Liverpool’s recording-breaking net profit of $155 million.
“Our revenues are depleted but our outgoings remain unaffected,” released the club in a mournful statement.
While it is easier to demonize Champions League-focused, revenue-generating clubs like Liverpool and Tottenham, one wonders if it’s fair to draw the same criticism of Bournemouth. In this case, furloughing staff may not be out of greed, but a necessity for survival. Bournemouth’s numbers reflect how much a small club must gamble to survive in today’s Premier League. 88% of the team’s total revenue comes from television rights, the highest percentage of any side. The need to stay in the Premier League and earn a portion of its $1.7 billion dollar television revenue is an all-in proposition. Bournemouth’s existence is predicated upon the Premier League’s outward, global gaze, the same perspective that appears to be shaping the relationship between player and club in real time.
We wondered what lessons we would take from the current stoppage in play, whether we would return appreciating the game, teams, and players more knowing how these weekend distractions framed our lives. Yet discussions of pay cuts and club finances also revealed the ramifications of the Premier League’s success. The noise from the season covered up the underlying balance in a club’s need to maintain its local authenticity while chasing global revenue to remain competitive. There may be no resolution, only the hope for the return of matches and television to drown out the silence.