Without dwelling (this is a football site after all), it is fair to say that the ongoing pandemic has brought with it many unforeseen consequences. For one, at a time where we have been unable to watch footballers on the pitch for over two months, they have still found themselves in the news and subject to a large amount of scrutiny. Early on, the global health pandemic and world of football unexpectedly crossed paths when the health secretary Matt Hancock seemingly tried to deflect blame and cause a stir, stating ‘given the sacrifices that many people are making, I think the first thing that Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut and play their part.’
Whilst Hancock’s comments were quickly met by backlash from players and pundits alike, they did serve to initiate a much wider conversation around footballers and their role in society. Is it fair that we now expect footballers to act as good role models, or should fans only be interested in what happens on the pitch? Is it really our business, or even particularly important, what footballers get up to in their personal life?
It’s no secret that a lot of young boys, and increasingly girls, grow up with the dream of becoming a footballer. The chance to watch their team play for the first time is a defining memory for many, and naturally the players they go on to watch week in and out become figures many look up to. The fact they will inevitably be looked up to by millions is likely not a consideration for many footballers when they join academy teams at the age of nine or younger, they simply want to play football. Granted, it’s not something they implicitly sign up for, but footballers become role models in society, whether they like it or not.
One of the most utilised arguments in support of footballers acting as role models relates to the hefty and arguably ludicrous pay package the majority of players (Premier League in particular), receive. It is an undeniable fact that many Premier League players earn more in a week, or even a day, than most people do in a year. The argument follows, by virtue of the amount they earn, footballers have an obligation to represent their team and act as good role models and ambassadors for the club off the pitch. Team slogans such as Liverpool’s ‘this means more’ serve to strengthen this argument, as they highlight that the game isn’t solely about footballing ability, but the sense of community and club spirit that form off the pitch are equally, if not more, important.
It would seem many clubs agree. When Jack Grealish was publicly shamed for breaking lockdown rules and attending a party at a friend’s house during the lockdown, the captain was fined £150,000 by Aston Villa (the equivalent of two weeks wages.) A club statement read “Aston Villa is deeply disappointed that one of our players ignored the Government’s guidance on staying at home during the Coronavirus crisis.” Evidently, clubs do feel that they have a sense of ownership over how footballers behave in their spare time, and simply performing well on the weekend doesn’t cut it.
Then there is, of course, the fact that many footballers accumulate a large following across social media. Often, players use these platforms to earn additional income through advertisements and sponsorship deals, but with that, they are also thrust even further into the public eye. At the time of writing, Cristiano Ronaldo is the most followed person on Instagram, with a staggering 218 million followers. Perhaps it is not necessarily the case that they have more of an obligation to be better role models than a decade ago, but simply that they are more visible now and subject to a higher level of scrutiny. If they are willing to use these platforms to earn additional income and reap the additional benefits that come with being a public figure, arguably on the flip side they must be willing to accept that they must act responsibly and accordingly in their daily life.
Before considering the counterarguments, it must be said that many footballers seem to embrace this part of the job. Days after the health secretary’s comments, footballers from across the Premier League and Women’s Superleague released their #PlayersTogether contribution fund to distribute money to where it is needed most in the COVID-19 crisis. Spearheaded by Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, the initiative proved once again the willingness of many footballers to step up and act as role models in society and help the most vulnerable in times of need. With risk of writing an entire article about incredible things footballers have done in recent years, in summary, it is fair to say that there are plenty of examples of footballers being exemplary role models, and even in this case going above and beyond to fill gaps in underfunding and society’s downfalls.
However, we also have to accept that footballers are just human beings, many of them incredibly young. Paying 16-20-year-olds more money than they feasibly could spend, coupled with the fact that everyone at that age is liable to mess up from time to time, lends itself to many making mistakes at a young age. Writing for The Telegraph, Josh Barrie supports this argument, commenting “the fact that we expect footballers to be role models at all, whatever their age, is fairly ridiculous.” He goes on to say “whenever a scandal emerges, social media, and the media in general, throws up its collective hands and wails. Before long, someone is reminding the player in question of his obligation to set an example to our impressionable youth. These young men have no such duty: they are not politicians, CEOs, or headteachers. They’re footballers.”
After Matt Hancock’s aforementioned comments suggesting footballers should contribute money to help the Coronavirus crisis, many echoed Barrie’s comments in suggesting that footballers were being used as scapegoats. Crystal Palace’s Andros Towsend noted that footballers were simply an easy target, with the media making it easier than ever before to scrutinise high-earning footballers. Speaking to Sky Sports, Former West Ham and Everton striker Tony Cottee reiterated that when he played the intense media scrutiny didn’t exist: ‘There used to be players doing things wrong and you made the newspapers if it was a big story. Otherwise, it was swept under the carpet.” Just because times have changed with regard to media coverage, should footballers be held to a higher moral standard than everyone else as a result? When regarded purely from a business perspective, they are required to play football and perform well for their clubs and fans, anything additional is just a bonus.
Of course, there will never be a definitive answer to the above debate, and it mostly comes down to personal discretion. However, the undeniable fact is that footballers are astronomically more visible, famous and better paid than ever before. Whether they like it or not, footballers have young and impressionable people watching their every move, and if they decide to break lockdown rules to visit family or crash their car after drinking, for example, many might begin to feel it is acceptable behaviour. Perhaps it’s not acceptable that they have their cake and eat it, and we should start holding them to a higher moral standard. Their actions on and off the pitch do matter, and they do have an obligation to at least recognise that everything they do is seen by millions. Granted, they do not explicitly sign up for this when they start playing football at a young age, but as with every job, there are bound to be unexpected consequences. Football is no exception.