Why are footballers’ wages in the news?

Even in normal times, the amount of money earned by top players in the national game is a hot topic. The average wage of a Premier League footballer reached £3m last season according to the Global Sports Salary Survey. This compares with the an average national wage of £29,559. Footballers are heroes and role models to many, but they are also easily recognisable symbols of financial inequality.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, however, footballers’ pay has become actively politicised. In part this is because some of the Premier League’s 20 clubs – currently Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United, Bournemouth and Norwich City – have chosen to furlough non-playing staff under the government’s coronavirus job retention scheme while continuing to pay their players in full.

Last Thursday the health secretary, Matt Hancock, complicated the matter when he said players should “play their part” in the fight against the virus by taking a pay cut. “Given the sacrifices many people are making, the first thing Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution,” Hancock said. This was interpreted by many to mean that players should give some of their wages to support frontline staff in the NHS.

So have they taken a pay cut?

As a collective, they have not. The Premier League has asked players to consider a temporary wage drop of 30%. However negotiations between the league, its 20 clubs, representatives of the players and the players’ union, the PFA, have yet to come to a conclusion after nearly a week.

Individually there has been a lot of activity. Last Friday the Premier League announced it would give £20m to the NHS and charitable causes. The Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson, has led a drive among players which is expected to make a similarly substantial donation to the health service. Up and down the country footballers have been volunteering time and money to help stricken communities in the crisis. In one prominent example, Marcus Rashford of Manchester United has fronted a campaign for the charity FareShare, helping children unable to access free school meals.



Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford has fronted a campaign to help children unable to access free school meals. Photograph: Phil Oldham/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

Such individual actions have not stopped the political pressure building. On Sunday night the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, published an open letter calling for footballers and clubs to “support the National Effort [sic] in whatever way they can.”

Why is a collective settlement proving so difficult?

Essentially the knot in the debate is two-fold. First there is the dual meaning over what any pay cut would be for: to help the country during the crisis, or to balance the books of the clubs? Second, there is mistrust between the PFA and lubs.

The union is widely felt to have acted slowly and been too confrontational in discussions. It has released lengthy statements defending its own interests and suggesting that a wage cut would be counterproductive as it would cut the amount of tax players would pay to the state and, therefore, public services.

Meanwhile, there continues to be astonishment that prestigious and (before the crisis) profitable clubs such as Liverpool and Tottenham should look to ask the taxpayer to cover the wages of their furloughed staff. Why, asks the union, should players take the hit for the greed of the clubs?

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Can the impasse be resolved?

It will have to be. As political pressure – not to mention that on social media – continues to rise, so does the damage to the reputation of the game. Football has become a target while so many other big businesses applying for government funds have not, but the Premier League holds a special place in British society. For a long time one of the UK’s most valuable cultural exports, it is in danger of looking like a villain during this crisis.

Player wages will have to come down and not just because the public will demand it. For all the unedifying behaviour by some clubs, the very top of the game – never mind the lower leagues – face a financial crisis if the currently suspended 2019-20 season does not resume. Broadcasters could ask for as much as £750m to be returned should games not be played. That figure, roughly, is what clubs might save should the players agree to drop their wages by a third.

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