As the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has increasingly come into question, Matt Hancock sought to shift the focus last week by indicating that we could blame the crisis on a surprising group: Premier League footballers.
With certain Premier League clubs looking to furlough their non-playing staff, the secretary of state for health and social care called on players to take pay cuts in order to lift the financial burden on their clubs. It is clearly wrong for these businesses to rely on public money to cover their wage bill, whilst simultaneously cutting the salaries of their lowest earners – but why did Hancock think the players should sort this out?
After all, as Wayne Rooney wrote in The Sunday Times, there is no guarantee that a pay cut to players would automatically go towards supporting furloughed staff. The extra income could just as easily go into the pockets of the billionaire owners or be saved to spend when the transfer window reopens. This is a set of clubs where only a quarter even pay their staff a living wage.
The players are not the only people within football clubs who earn hugely inflated salaries. According to football finance expert Kieran Maguire, three-quarters of Premier League directors earn over £500,000. On the same day Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy announced he would furlough non-playing staff, the club’s accounts were released showing he had received a £3m bonus. Considering these are the people actually deciding to use the government’s furlough scheme, surely Hancock would be better placed publicly shaming them.
Meanwhile Richard Branson has called on the government to provide the aviation industry with a £7.5bn bailout. Hancock was unwilling to comment on this, unlike the situation surrounding football clubs. Footballers are estimated to contribute over a billion pounds of tax annually, in comparison with Branson who describes himself as a ‘tax exile’ with a residency in the Virgin Islands to avoid paying anything on his fortune.
So why did Hancock feel so justified in singling out footballers?
They undeniably earn eye-wateringly excessive wages. Unfortunately so do quite a large number of people. Based on figures from HMRC in 2018/19, 18700 people in the UK earn over £1m annually. Even assuming that every player in the Premier League was paid that much (which is a generous assumption), they would only make up 2% of those top earners.
But footballers are different from the rest of these high earners in one key way: they are a lot more likely to be working class. A Sutton Trust report found that only 5% of British footballers went to private school. The report investigated the educational backgrounds of ‘Britain’s leading people’ – those considered to have influence and prestige. Out of all the sectors, football was the only one where you were less likely to have gone to a private school than the national average.
Footballers are relentlessly chided for their wealth in a way that other rich people aren’t. Pierre Bourdieu argued that taste in society is based on the aesthetic values of the ruling class. When Raheem Sterling – who grew up on a council estate in Wembley – bought his mum a house, it was seen as being poor taste to get a big flashy mansion. Of course, if you are part of the bourgeoisie, you never need to buy your mum a mansion because you already grew up in one with her.
This is why Hancock singled footballers out: as working class men, it is both unfathomable and unacceptable for footballers to earn extortionate salaries. They should be expected to support workers within their clubs on lower incomes, despite having no influence on what those salaries were in the first place. It is implicitly hinted that this burden is justified because they are from the same class background as those workers.
Meanwhile the investment bankers and CEOs deserve their wealth, as a result of their job title and class background. There is no need for them to consider the plight of people outside of their milieu. The government won’t hang them out to dry because the government feels the same way. Tories like Hancock are only willing to acknowledge one kind of undeserving rich: the working classes.
Jessy Parker Humphreys is a freelancer journalist. They write about football for the Offside Rule.