Football fans and morals. A thorny bush, as we’ve discussed before on Just Football. But should we as supporters be ready to withhold our support for players whose behaviour doesn’t quite match our own standards or moral codes? Making his debut, we welcome Chris Woolfrey.
Yesterday (17/01/11) it was claimed that a cohort of Premiership footballers, including Wayne Rooney and England team-mates Ashley Cole and Gareth Barry (The Times), are avoiding tax payments through a number of legal loopholes, and that the combined sum of unpaid tax sings to the tune of around £100m (The Daily Star).
Given the current mood for punishment that sections of the public are voicing over tax avoidance – the UK Uncut campaign has caused a serious headache for Arcadia boss Philip Green, who protesters claim owes billions in tax – the news makes for interesting reading. Given, too, that these revelations come on the back of a number of high profile ‘mistakes’ by a number of high-profile footballers – Rooney’s alleged off-field misdemeanours and so on – it begs the following question:
Does how a sports-person conducts their life dictate our appreciation of them?
The question is tremendously difficult. How do West Ham fans view Paolo Di Canio now, after scoring a goal for Lazio and celebrating with a fascist salute? Should it matter? Can you separate the sport from the person?
Examples are abound; these new reports of tax avoidance are simply more fuel for the fire. Frequently newspapers report on the soap-opera sex lives of professional footballers, from John Terry’s affairs to the national furore over Sven Goran Eriksson’s unfaithfulness back when he was England manager.
Plus, it’s not a modern phenomenon. George Best, of course, was frequently the subject of media attention, not least because of his problems with drink but also because he was a young, handsome and charismatic man who came closer than most footballers to living like a musician, an actor, a socialite. Examples are abound here, too; before the European Championship in 1996 the English tabloids were obsessed not with England’s poor pre-tournament results but with stories of Paul Gascoigne et al trashing aeroplanes and drinking bars dry long into the morning.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, that the ultra-rich do everything in their power to pay less in tax than they should is a well known narrative, and it’s important to remember that footballers aren’t just sports people; some of them are also part of the ultra-rich. Equally, that people have affairs, sleep around, cheat on spouses, is hardly a phenomena unique to the footballing community, and nor is excessive drinking.
It’s difficult to know whether that’s the point here, though. Certainly footballers, when they’re being footballers, are at work; and to be able to keep your work and private life separate is an unspoken social rule. Further, the (sometimes) very private things we’re told about them are well within the remit of ‘normal’, if morally dubious, behaviour.
But something doesn’t quite chime: isn’t forgetting that the behaviour of footballers is often terrible, just because we admire their sporting prowess or are partisan in our support for them, a little naïve? Can we keep the beauty of the sport, for all its good points, separate from the bad ones? Shouldn’t we grow up?
Taking that one more step, though, you’d also have to consider that, if you could boycott footballers – plus presumably football teams or football itself – on the basis of off-pitch behaviour, then you’d have to think long and hard about the music you listen to, the films you watch, the politicians you vote for.
Should footballers be judged by their actions, then? Max Rushden doesn’t think so. That said, it’d be hard to deny that Di Canio’s behaviour, if not plain wrong, was certainly insensitive, and at the very, very least a compromising thing to get yourself into at work. Which counts for something.
All in all, as with most important debates, there’s probably not an easy answer: so let’s hear your thoughts.
Chris Woolfrey is a new contributor to Just Football.
(photo by Ryu Voelkel on Flickr)