Friday, 22 May 2009

The beautiful game under threat from unfair chances

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.


Ben said...

Inequality worsens life expectancy and teenage obesity so Everton should have a greater chance of winning the Premiership?

This conflation of two separate issues - the dynamics of English football and equality and social mobility in Britain - is a nonsense. If you want to blog about football, fine. Personally I find it an almost endlessly diverting topic. You shouldn't feel the need to justify your interest with allusions to the more pressing concerns in our society.

Tom Stratton said...

Hi Ben,

There have been a few similar comments about this study in various corners of the blogosphere.

I don't feel the need to justify my interest in football by tagging it on to wider issues in society. This post is simply making a couple of observations. The first is that football was swept along with the changes Britain experienced under Thatcher during the eighties. It was interesting to see the direct relationship between the pervasive atmosphere of individualism in the country and large clubs ceasing to believe in the football 'society'. The second point aimed to illustrate how even those at the top who seem to benefit the most from growing inequality will be harmed. It is, in my opinion, interesting to see how in the States every effort is made to keep a relatively level playing field. The reasoning behind this - that the most successful rely heavily on those below them for their success - is very aptly applied to society at large, as The Spirit Level attempts to show.

I think if one takes these two observations as starting points for a discussion they are thought provoking, depending of course on your interests.