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Spotlight on Premier League wages should be on owners, not players

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The players should probably take a pay deferral for the long-term sustainability of the game, but let’s not forget that most people who own Premier League clubs are literally billionaires

Club Badge - Arsenal Football Club Photo by Visionhaus

Football, of course, is not insulated from worldwide events. This is something that, as Arsenal fans, we know well; Arsenal were the first English team to go into isolation, after Olympiacos’ owner tested positive for COVID-19, and then, when Mikel Arteta tested positive, the entire Premier League shut down. The pandemic, and the shut downs of entire countries to enable people to stay at home and slow the spread of coronavirus, has affected the economy. Unemployment claims in the United States are at a record high; we are likely looking at a recession that will easily surpass the last recession, in 2008.

Top flight football was somewhat insulated from the last recession. Football, because entire leagues have had to stop playing, is not insulated from this one. Many teams across Europe and around the world are taking pay cuts or deferring their salaries. The Premier League is asking for players to take a paycut of 30%. There are certain clubs, even Premier League clubs, that could go bust if the league is voided and clubs are forced to pay back millions of pounds to broadcasters. There are also players, including Aaron Ramsey, who are donating a percentage of their wages to the NHS, and other charities.

But the real issue here has become about continuing to pay players while also paying club employees—the people who work matchdays at stadiums, who clean the stadiums and the training grounds, who are in ticket offices, and who have mostly been out of work for nearly a month and who need the paychecks most. Some clubs, including Arsenal, have committed to paying these employees until April 30, if not longer. But other clubs, including Bournemouth, Tottenham Hotspur, and Newcastle, have furloughed their employees, meaning the employees will now be claiming the UK government’s scheme, of paying 80% of wages, or up to £2,500 per month during this crisis.

There is, of course, some irony in clubs worth vast sums of money, whose owners often escape paying tax by registering their companies in the Cayman Islands, or Delaware, not paying their employees and relying on the government, when that scheme is for employees in the public sector, the self-employed, and the service industry. In announcing that Tottenham were laying their employees off, chairman Daniel Levy, the recipient of a £4m salary in 2019 and a £3m bonus for the delayed opening of Spurs’ new stadium, took aim at the Premier League players for not agreeing to have their wages cut.

Hours later, in briefing the country about the latest coronavirus updates, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, a member of the Conservative Party who have cut public services, including the budget and salary of the NHS, went after the Premier League’s players, effectively accusing them of being greedy. No mention was made of billionaire Richard Branson, who asked Virgin Airways staff to take 8 weeks of unpaid leave.

This is the dichotomy that exists with asking Premier League players to take a paycut. They probably should, especially to ensure that those who don’t make millions of pounds a year, such as employees at their clubs, and professional footballers in the lower divisions, are able to survive, and that their clubs are able to survive. But it is rich to hear them being attacked by those who have not taken a paycut. Daniel Levy isn’t giving his salary back, and for fairness, nor are Raul Sanllehi or Vinai Venketesham. Stan Kroenke, worth billions, doesn’t pay tax in the United Kingdom, and Matt Hancock, presiding over a reduction in the National Health Service’s budget (and the testing difficulties that has seen only 2,000 hospital workers in the UK have been able to get tested), isn’t asking Richard Branson, or his other billionaire pals, who own football clubs, to take a paycut.

Look, Premier League players are largely a very privileged group, and feeling bad for someone who has millions right now is a stretch. But, they only have a short amount of time to make as much money as they can, and for some players, their wealth is life-changing, for them, for their family, and extended family. That the PFA is trying to negotiate the best case for the deferral of their wages isn’t a sign of greed; it’s a sign of trying to protect their members. The ire shouldn’t be towards the players; it’s the billionaires who see players not as human beings, but as assets, to be bought when their labor is needed, and sold as soon as it is not. The spotlight shouldn’t be on the players, but on the ones who use them to make money and then call on them to sacrifice their earnings while protecting their own, untouched money.