Guest post by Tom Stratton
Is it possible that British society can learn a thing or two from the state of our national game? That is what Sunder Katwala and I have claimed in an essay charting decreasing social mobility in English football. Through research undertaken in conjunction with the Fabian Society we show that football has become stratified; if left unchecked, this could undermine the legitimacy of our domestic competition. The dynamics behind the threat inequality poses to football are enlightening and make a compelling point about society at large.
The case for decreasing mobility in football is undeniable. The game today has become almost predictable; the same teams, with a few exceptions, compete for the end of season honours, others reside in mid-table oblivion, while some yo-yo between divisions. The reality is that a ‘caste’ system exists in English football, where teams know their place and revise their aspirations accordingly. Finishing outside the top four is a catastrophe for the big four teams, while seventeenth place for promoted clubs represents a successful season. Only twenty years ago there was a greater chance of a promoted team finishing in the top six than being relegated.
The loss of social mobility in football was down to an erosion of the football ‘society’, a narrative that was concurrently played out in Thatcher’s Britain. During the 1980s larger clubs began to feel their worth to football was not being sufficiently rewarded. The first TV contract to weight its payments specifically towards the bigger clubs was negotiated at the beginning of the 88/89 season, while the onset of the Premier League brought the end of cross-subsidisation of gate receipts for clubs in the top flight. The individualisation of football reflected the rise of the ‘New Right in Britain’; John Redwood once noted that Conservative measures against the ‘culture of dependency’ would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the 80s, and that they came into existence at all represented a shift in the psyche of the country. Rampant individualism and minimal investment in public services saw those at the bottom left to fend for themselves. Inequality rocketed as a result of the change in atmosphere and policy; the Gini Coefficient, a widely respected measure of inequality, rose during the period 1979 – 1990 from 101 to 135.
There are useful parallels between the problems English football and Britain could face as a result of their respective unequal societies. Football is a joint product; teams are interdependent and only become viable entities as a result of combination with another club to produce a competitive saleable output. This is something even the most rabidly free market societies are aware of. In the US, the draft system favours redistribution of playing resources; American football and basketball employ salary caps while gate receipts and television money are shared under varying arrangements. Similarly, unequal societies don’t just harm those at the bottom. The Spirit Level, a wide ranging study on the consequences of inequality, shows us that in unequal societies there is lower life expectancy, higher rates of obesity and teenage pregnancy, and more violent crime than in fairer equivalents. On a purely economic level, Britain is a far more attractive investment prospect if there is a vibrant internal market, skilled, literate and healthy workers, and an environment in which people feel encouraged to be creative as upward mobility and success are obtainable, even for those at the bottom.
English football and Britain are facing not dissimilar problems. While everybody can appreciate the glamour and excitement the Premiership and the last decade of affluence have brought, it would be foolish to ignore the potential harm inequality can have on long-term prospects. Beyond the moral argument that societies should help those least able to help themselves, the gap between the top and bottom in football and British society must be reduced if both are to retain their reputation as vibrant, competitive entities.