Saturday, 2 August 2008

Talk about Slavery

According to the walking quote machine, Sepp Blatter, footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo who earned millions of pounds from their job were being treated like slaves. Sepp was deeply concerned that football millionaires could not just tear up the contracts they had freely entered into, and move to organisations willing to pay them even more money.

In reality, of course, footballers could leave their employment at any time they want. If they have signed a contract to say that in return for whatever salary they have negotiated they would stay for at least X years, and they leave before those years are up, they (or their new employer) would have to pay compensation. So far, so little sign of slavery in sight.

However, the ability of the top players to command astronomical fees does have a significant bearing on the power structure of the sporting industry and society more generally. What we now have is a tiny minority of people who take the largest share of money out of football. For most people, their passion for playing the game, even if backed by a good level of skills, would be doomed to frustration as at best they could cling on to a precarious job with a club away from the summit of the super-rich. Calls for a fairer distribution of the money generated by football are ignored as even more is concentrated with the powerful few.

The argument is always that you have to reward talent, or talent will be wasted. But this is to conflate the need for differentiation with a craving for exaggerated superiority. Take a thousand footballers, it would be demotivating if they would all get the same payment regardless of their abilities and talents. So we could differentiate them into pay bands with the widest gap set at ten, twenty, or even fifty times between top and bottom. Would that not be enough to motivate everyone to get as high as possible while giving all those who meet the basic requirements a decent security and respectability for the work they do? After all, Geoff Hirst did not need to be offered double the payment of his teammates for him to score a hat-trick in the World Cup Final.

It is sensible to have reasonable differentials. But once you go beyond that and allow a few individuals to have such concentrated wealth and power to dictate terms to others, to have the audacity to criticise what little contractual constraints there are left on them as a form of slavery, you would have replaced what was a fair sporting contest by a plutocratic competition between organisations which could borrow or, if they had billionaire benefactors, obtain enough money to recruit the most skillful players from the world.

A society which accepts this – even celebrates it as a sign of success – will allow its corrosive ethos to spread. To those who could demand better terms, more and more would be granted, while less and less is available for everyone else. Differentials would come to have no relevance at all to secure motivation to be a better player, but simply to boost one’s ego and control over others. With the top getting just about whatever they asked for, all those lower down would have to accept the few crumbs left behind. In sport, and in everywhere else, the lowest paid end up having to put up with the most disgusting conditions, the most disrespectful terms, and the most humiliating treatment. Now that’s slavery.