This article was first published by myself, Chris Allen, and Mike Hodson in issue 21 of @STANDfanzine earlier this year.
Football clubs that were historically established to support communities are now commodities that the Global super-rich trade between themselves. These clubs have never been worth more money than they are now. Then there are the footballers that play for the clubs. Footballers salaries have never been higher. Footballers playing in the old Division One in 1984-5 earned £25k a year compared to the average UK income of £8,890, i.e. they only earned 2.7 times more than the average fan in what was a much shorter career. Fast forward to the 2014-15 Premier League season and the average footballer wage was £1.7m compared to UK income of £27,600, i.e. they earned 61.5 times more than the ordinary fan. Meanwhile, the average basic pay of a current Manchester United first team player is £5.77m a year which is 209 times an average UK salary and the highest footballer salaries in the world.
This is a story of growing inequality between the football industry and its supporters that mirrors growing inequalities in society. It is also a story that has its standard villains and victims. The villains are the super-rich clubs and footballers that are milking the fans for every penny they have got. The victims are the fans that are paying more than ever to watch football. Many fans can no longer afford to watch it and now find themselves excluded from football grounds. This exclusion has even reached the non-league pyramid where some teams now charge around £20 for a game of football.
But the inequalities that football is creating is not simply harming its fans. Inequality is bad for everyone – including the super-rich. This was the theme in a book, The Spirit Level, written by Richard WIlkinson and Kate Pickett, which shows that wealth is not necessarily a good thing. It can be a very bad thing, especially in the context of growing inequality in society. They found that wealthy societies with high levels of inequality suffered from an erosion of community and social trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and excessive levels of consumption that made all of these problems worse. There is no better proof of this malaise than if we look inside the football industry where we find that inequality is bad for everyone – rich and poor. This is the other side of the story of inequality.
The financial meaning of footballing success
Prior to the establishment of the Premier League in 1992, the British football world was very different. Football was much more about community than a race for riches. In his book, Thank God for Football, Peter Lupson details how some of England’s most celebrated clubs – including Aston Villa, Manchester City, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers and Everton – emerged out of a church and a ‘muscular Christianity’ that promoted the importance of serving others, a sense of duty and building community – albeit a Christian one. Although a church foundation was not necessarily typical of a lot of other clubs, its community ethos was. Many other clubs emerged out of the philanthropy of employers who were equally keen to support communities – albeit, like the church, for their own reasons. But the point of football was to build communities.
In the old Football League system, relations between clubs were equally communal and mutually supportive. Thus TV money and gate receipts were typically shared between clubs. This meant that the money generated by the sport was more equally shared between bigger and smaller clubs which, in turn, assured the financial health of all clubs and therefore the overall game. It also placed an unofficial cap on wages. Since football’s wealth was more evenly distributed, rather than amassed by the big few, it meant that the big clubs were unable to pay sky high wages. So the game was not only more equal. It was less excessive.
This changed with the advent of the Premier League in 1992. The redistributive financial model of the old Football League was now abandoned in favour of a ‘winner takes all’ model of competition that only the big clubs could win. TV money and gate receipts were now greedily claimed by the big Premier League cubs for themselves. The result has been a loss of community as clubs fight with each other to access the riches on offer in the Premier League. These riches have become more and more astronomical over time as the TV deals that the Premier League has struck with broadcasters such as Sky and BT Sport have become ever more ridiculous.
TV money is made available to clubs through simple participation in the Premier League. Hence play-off finals between Championship clubs are now described in terms of their financial worth to the winning team that will get to share in the riches of the Premier League. Then there are the additional benefits of final position in the Premier League table, which brings its own financial rewards. This final table position has arguably become more important than winning for some clubs. So whereas Bill Shankly once famously said that “second is nowhere” because people only remember the winners, a top 4 berth (which secures access to the additional riches of the Champions League) is now talked about in equivalent terms to winning. This has created a situation in which some clubs are more than happy to settle for ‘second best’. Indeed much of the criticism directed at Arsene Wenger has been on the grounds that he defines success in these very terms because the club is primarily concerned to secure access to Champions League riches rather than winning the Premier League itself.
The failure of footballing success
This scramble for riches has created a monster; a culture in which the pressure for ‘success’ is borne by those charged with delivering it – players and managers. These pressures for success in the football industry are so crushing that biographies of some top footballers, such as the late Robert Enke, talk about how the everyday lives of top-flight footballers are lived in fear – a fear of failure.
Then there are those players that have not yet made it. As top players’ wages have reached extreme levels of excess, Premier League clubs have found new ways to stay one step ahead of their rivals in the footballing rat race. Many have now built academies where young players can be ‘brought through’ or sold on. This has led to a huge increase in the football trade in children since the formation of the Premier League 25 years ago. When Saturday Comes (360) recently reported that the average age of first departure abroad for migrants is now 21 whereas the number of footballers leaving their home countries before the age of 18 has trebled between 1995 and 2015. The Premier League is the principal destination for these footballers.
Although the dominant media story about this migration of footballers is that they negatively affect the career prospects of homegrown players, there is a hidden story. Many of these children are recruited into football having few alternative economic prospects. According to Juliet Jacques, writing in the New Statesman, bringing youngsters into strange foreign environments where they need to adapt to new cultures, as well as handle the immediate pressure to succeed, has been a recipe for mental health problems.
Although homegrown players may have the advantage of cultural familiarity, many are just as economically dependent upon their football dream coming true as the foreigner plucked from poverty. As the recent sexual abuse scandal in football has shown, this has created a system in which powerful figures in the game have been able to abuse would-be-footballers safe in the knowledge that they have little option but to stay quiet if they want a future in the sport. The consequences of this on players like Andy Woodward have been devastating. Yet for all the positive talk about academies, few young players make it through the to the big time. According to the Professional Footballers Association, more than 700 players a year end up being thrown out of football in their twenties after failing to earn a new contract.
Money, success and well-being
The point is this. Professional football players have never been better paid. Even ‘average’ footballers playing in the Championship are now being paid £324,250 per year. Those in League One take home an average pay of £69,500 and those in League Two £40,350. This compares to the national average wage in the UK of £27,600. But the players earning these wages are not necessarily better off than the rest of us. There is a good reason for this.
All the social scientific evidence suggests tht wealth and success do not bring happiness, fulfillment or enhanced well being. Charles Montgomery’s book ‘Happy City’ makes this point better than most. He quotes surveys that show that the wealthier we become, the more miserable and mentally unhealthy we are. There is no better example of this than in football. Although there have never been so many wealthy footballers, there have arguably never been so many mentally suffering.
When Tony Adams published his ground-breaking confessional autobiography, he revealed a hidden truth about the reality of life for some Premier League footballers. It was a life blighted by mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. The stories of other high profile players such as Gazza, Clarke Carlisle, Stan Collymore, Dean Windass, Kenny Sansom, Gary Speed and Robert Enke (the last two being the tragic victims of suicide) have since become well known. But what has been less well known is how common their stories are amongst all footballers. We can find this out if we consult a recent FIFPro survey which found that 38% of current professionals and 35% of former footballers have reported experiencing depression and/or anxiety. To put this in context, statistics produced by the Mental Health Foundation show that:
- Mixed anxiety & depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain, with 7.8% of people meeting criteria for diagnosis
- 4-10% of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime. Although other studies suggest the prevalence of anxiety and depression might be as high as 16% among the general population
Although it is difficult to directly compare FIFPro figures with Mental Health Foundation figures, they are revealing. The incidence of mental health problems in football is huge compared to society at large. Even when compared with levels of depression and anxiety amongst another population – prisoners – that live their lives in a highly pressurised and suffocating environment, footballers still fare worse. A recent Ministry of Justice study found that 23% of male prisoners suffered from anxiety and depression; much lower than professional footballers.
All of this points to an industry with a mental health crisis. The failure is not simply that money does not bring happiness. It is that the culture of success that is driving football has created a set of industry-wide working conditions that are destroying lives; sometimes literally. This has not always been well understood in football.
When Stan Collymore was suffering from depression whilst playing for Aston Villa, his manager, John Gregory, told the media that he was bemused how Collymore could be depressed whilst earning £20,000 per week. However, we now know more thanks to players such as ex-Portsmouth, Stoke and Cameroon striker Vincent Pericard. He found life in the Premier League pressured and overwhelming but felt there was nowhere to escape from these pressures. He was unable to talk to team-mates about his depression for fear that he might be targeted as a weak link in an industry culture that simply could not tolerate weak links when there is so much at stake. Moreover, he could not confide in his manager for fear of being dropped, sold or putting his contract renewal at risk.
It is not as if the money compensates footballers for the pressures. In fact, money makes it worse. Money is, after all, a lifeless thing that society invests with almost supernatural powers to make us happy. The reality, however, is that the powers of money are superficial. As many psychological studies of consumption have shown, spending it might make us feel good ‘in the moment’ but that just covers up our myriad of problems and real needs.
Many footballers spend their excessive wealth in ways that enable them to hide from their mental health problems. They invest their riches in alcohol and gambling, which are problems that are growing amongst professional footballers. The consequences of gambling can be severe. Research published in 2013 by X-Pro (a charity run for ex-players) found that three out of five (60%) Premier League players – who earn an average of £30,000 per week – now declare bankruptcy within five years of retirement. This is a staggering figure when one compares it with figures produced by the Office for National Statistics in 2012 which show the highest insolvency rate in the UK to be 35.2 per 10,000 in North East which is 0.352%!
Levelling the playing field
The story about Premier League monetary excess being bad for fans is well known. But the hidden story is that it has also been bad for footballers. Over the last few decades football clubs have been transformed from community enterprises into ruthless money making machines. They now generate excessive and obscene levels of wealth. But with that excess wealth have come excess pressures. Real human beings have suffered the consequences. If Wilkinson and Pickett are correct that unequal societies are bad for the health of everybody – which certainly seems the case in football – then there is a greater need than ever to create a level playing field for everybody’s sake. That means a more level playing field between clubs, between footballers, and between footballers and fans. Premier League and other ‘big’ football clubs will not willingly do this themselves. So it is incumbent on fans to vote with their feet and support forms of football that are healthy for everyone and society in general. This is why many fans in Britain have turned to non-league football where the sense of community persists and where there is a much more level playing field. This is visible across a wide range of existing clubs, from Hyde United to Exeter City, where supporters have taken ownership. It is also exemplified by newer, fan-owned clubs, such as AFC Liverpool and FC United of Manchester; as well as so-called phoenix clubs, represented by 1883 Darlington, AFC Wimbledon, and 1874 Northwich. These clubs are not only places of resistance to the dominant, contemporary monster that football has become. They are also imbued with the historic mission of football: to support communities and build a level playing field. And it is on level playing fields where more healthy societies are to be found.
ENDNOTE: If you enjoyed this article and are concerned about how football can tackle inequality and build a more cohesive and caring society, then please consider donating to my fan project @AFCLiverpool which seeks to integrate asylum seekers and refugees into the heart of a supportive non-league football fan community. The aim of the project is to provide friendship and support to asylum seekers and refugees that feel alone and afraid in a strange country, to provide a sense of belonging, to benefit mental well-being, to build social cohesion, to tackle discrimination and to generate greater understanding of asylum and refugee issues among football fans. https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/afcliverpool4refugees