ou can’t defend Kyle Walker. A common sentiment, albeit one usually expressed with a comma in the middle. To break coronavirus protocol once, by hosting an adult-themed party at his house in April, might be considered unfortunate. To do so twice, by visiting his family in south Yorkshire, unwise. To then compound matters by offering up a defiant statement complaining of “harassment” is probably the point at which someone close to the Manchester City and England right-back should probably have taken him to one side for a quiet, physically-distanced chat.
“I feel as though I have stayed silent long enough,” Walker incorrectly surmised in the statement explaining his decision to drive 40 miles to visit his parents in Sheffield, having first dropped in on his sister for a chat and a hug. “What am I meant to do, push her away?” Walker asked, inadvertently answering his own question. Look, Kyle. Maybe read the room a little. Maybe a short period of lockdown for the mouth might not be the worst idea right now.
If Walker didn’t know at the time that he had screwed up, then the reaction to his statement on social media – shrill, censorious, bordering on the vindictive – will quickly have set him straight. His club are said to be deeply unimpressed, to say nothing of the England manager, Gareth Southgate, who has not picked him for a squad in almost a year. And yet as deeply, dangerously foolish as Walker has been, let’s not pretend that this is a story motivated solely by a heartfelt concern for public health.
Consider, for example, why it was deemed necessary for a newspaper to assign a photographer to wait outside Walker’s home in Manchester, trail him as he left and follow him around northern England for nine hours. If it was a form of noble public interest journalism, then it appears to have been a curiously selective one: walk down virtually any street in the country right now and you will find numerous examples of distances not being kept, of non-essential trips being made, of rules being flouted. So why the big fuss about Walker in particular? And why go to the trouble of tailing him all day? The answer, of course, is not all coronavirus offenders are made equal. The flimsy “role model” defence is often applied in cases like this, an attempt to rationalise the very British impulse to tear down the famous.
It is an impulse that finds its expression not just in newspapers but in a good deal of online discourse, where the urge to expose, to embarrass, to excoriate, has morphed into a sort of macabre spectator sport. The bigger the name, the bigger the cross on their back. It was ever thus.
But there is a more specific context at play here, one that only really becomes apparent when you examine a text box accompanying the original newspaper story: an “All-Star Covidiots XI” comprising footballers alleged to have breached lockdown. Walker is captain, naturally, but Tottenham’s Serge Aurier, Ryan Sessegnon and Moussa Sissoko are all in there with him for not respecting physical distancing rules. Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette too, after standing too close to a valet who had visited his house to wash his car.
Who benefits from all this? Perhaps it seems overly cynical to point this out, but you may have noticed that a monumental battle is being waged within Premier League clubs right now, and it is a battle of optics and PR as much as testing capacity and sporting integrity. The Premier League has made it clear that come what may, the remainder of the 2019-20 season must be scheduled: behind closed doors if necessary, every two or three days if necessary, with players and staff sealed off from their families and swabbed to the eyeballs if necessary.
A number of players have already voiced their concerns about taking the field in the jaws of a pandemic, when many of us will still be confined to our homes, when the virus is still killing hundreds of people daily. Sergio Agüero says many are scared to play again. Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings and Norwich’s Todd Cantwell have also voiced their concerns. Meanwhile, the news that a third Brighton player tested positive for coronavirus over the weekend was greeted in some quarters not with concern or empathy but the accusation that Brighton were deliberately infecting their players with a deadly virus in order to get the rest of the season cancelled. Well, they do say you have to dig deep in a relegation struggle.
The point is this. At a time when the game’s powerbrokers are desperately making the case to resume top-level football, it needs to win the debate on player welfare. It needs to convince fans, authorities and the public that the interests of the game outweigh the interests of its participants. That task becomes much easier if people are already predisposed to believing that footballers are pampered, entitled self-serving millionaires with no sense of civic duty and a predilection for sex parties. We saw elements of this in last month’s absurd controversy over player wage deferrals.
Or, to put it another way: when the resumption debate turns to player wellbeing, the Premier League would rather you weren’t picturing Agüero, or Cantwell, or the three Brighton players with coronavirus. They’d rather you were picturing Kyle Walker, hurtling along the M62 in his sports car while the rest of us sit at home. For all the damage done to his own reputation, perhaps Walker’s gravest indiscretion has been to drain public sympathy from his profession at a time when it is needed more than ever.