You may have heard about the 13‑year‑old schoolboy from Leeds called Oliver Cooper who, it has been reported, was sent home after selling precious squirts of hand sanitiser for 50p each. Cooper’s scheme was rumbled when he recklessly tried to sell a squirt to one of his teachers, although not before he had made £9: a windfall that, according to his mother, is being invested in “a multipack of Doritos” and “a kebab”.
All good clean fun and on reflection almost certainly one of those stories that has been trumped up for the benefit of the gullible internet. But a reminder, too, that even in the thick of a crisis there will always be a few with an eye on the main chance, who in the words of the investor Warren Buffett are prepared to “be greedy when others are fearful”. At a time when it feels like the very terms of our lives are being renegotiated by the day, we should be vigilant of those who see in the crumbling of our social and economic norms an unprecedented opportunity to advance ideas that may, in less turbulent times, be taboo.
What might this look like in sporting terms? Perhaps, in the first instance, it could look like the sort of naked opportunism being advanced by the West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady in her Sun column on Saturday. “As games in both the Premier League and in the EFL are affected,” Brady dictates to her ghostwriter, “the only fair and reasonable thing to do is declare the whole season null and void.”
Brady was quick to “clarify” her comments but not before many had pointed out that her own club would benefit handsomely from a voided season, heroically avoiding relegation from the Premier League on goal difference: a Great Escape to rival their remarkable revival under Alan Curbishley more than a decade ago. For “Tevez and Mascherano 06-07”, read “Brady and Covid 19-20”.
Then again, if we’re rewriting the past, why stop there? Given their ignominious history, West Ham must wish they could declare the past four decades of English football null and void.
Setting aside for one moment the crassness of engaging in sporting politics at a time when people are dying by the thousand, you had to marvel at the simple and transparent ineptitude at work here. As a star of The Apprentice, Brady must know the first rule of negotiation: never show your full hand. And yet, if sporting administration were composed entirely of galaxy brains like Brady’s, we could probably rest easy. Alas, when it comes to Machiavellian chicanery, it’s highly likely the ham-fisted manoeuvrings of east London’s dildo siblings are just the tip of the iceberg.
Already there are the first rumblings that the imminent financial turmoil faced by many sports may force them into those famously euphemistic “tough choices”. Perhaps it was purely coincidence, for instance, that this week on Monday an extremely well-sourced report in the Daily Mail suggested coronavirus may force several professional rugby union clubs into bankruptcy.
Further down, the article suggests one proposed remedy: selling the Six Nations television rights to a subscription channel, a prospect that over recent weeks has met with fierce resistance. But that was under the old rules. If you’re CVC, the private equity firm on the verge of buying a stake in the tournament and which has long been keen to maximise its broadcast revenues, it would be only natural to wonder if the fear of insolvency may – as they say – sharpen a few minds.
Expect to see more of this sort of thing in the coming weeks: sporting bodies and vested interests arguing that these are unprecedented times and that a little loosening of the legislative strictures may reluctantly be necessary. It’s difficult to be precise about this without verging into conspiracy theory but is it so outlandish, for example, to ask if big European football clubs who have long been pushing for a lucrative breakaway league may, in the current leadership vacuum, spot their moment to strike?
How to solve the fixture gridlock when football finally resumes? One of the solutions being mooted is temporarily scrapping the League Cup or doing away with FA Cup replays – two moves, you will notice, many clubs have been tacitly advocating for years.
How to save lower-league clubs facing the loss of crucial match-day revenue? Simple: “strategic partnerships” with larger clubs that could over time turn them into de facto subsidiaries or feeders.
How to rationalise the truncated cricket season? Pare back the County Championship and the Blast, or – as the former England and Wales Cricket Board director Andy Nash believes will happen – merge the latter competition with the Hundred, recasting it not just as the centrepiece of the summer but the financial lifeline for an ailing game.
With the help of an overactive imagination and a long period of self-isolation, you could probably come up with a few more. If this strikes you as fanciful, premature, the crackpot ramblings of the sportswriter with no sport to write about, then fine. But consider this, too: for the next few weeks, perhaps even months, the power brokers of sport – administrators and executives, sponsors and speculators, agents and marketers – will be at a loose end. Nothing to do but plot and strategise and kick around ideas. And then ask yourself a question: how far do you trust these people to act in the best interests of the sport you love?