Time for some honesty from Fifpro on player treatment

As part of its ongoing campaign to make players appear hard done by, Fifpro, the global players’ union, has taken to disseminating misleading player income data. If football is to be cleaned up, shouldn’t players be giving a lead on honesty and clarity, rather than resorting to spinning?

This week Fifpro has been holding a sports law conference. Part of this, to time with the 20th anniversary of the Bosman Ruling, has been a further attack on the transfer system. (I’ve covered this previously in my review of Fifpro’s surprisingly weak report on the supposed harms of the system.)

On its twitter coverage of the conference, Fifpro quoted Leo Grosso, its former president, as saying ‘players are still commodities’ and Jean-Marc Bosman himself as describing them as being treated ‘like pigs and chickens’.

Now, of course, this isn’t literally true. Do you, for example, know of any oranges or milk or pigs or chickens who are paid a salary? A salary, in fact, that makes them, in the top leagues, some of the very highest earners in those countries?

In response, I tweeted this:

I am aware, of course, that not all players are this well-paid. But, from the perspective of a fan in England, I think it’s literally laughable to describe players as suffering in conditions of such reduced employment rights that they are seen by their employers as little better than farm animals. (These, of course, are the working conditions of the people in Qatar and Russia building the magnificent new stadia for Fifpro’s members to ply their highly remunerated trade in. (I would certainly find it much easier to support Fifpro’s call for player rights if it came with a refusal by players to play in those stadia – or at least an edict that Fifpro’s biggest names, like Xavi, should stop giving PR cover to these abuses.))

I gave the £50,000 a week figure because, while it’s not a wage that every Premier League player is on, it’s a number that we no longer bat an eyelid at, knowing, as we do, that it’s less than a quarter of the base salaries of some players. I wasn’t arguing, then, that all footballers are overpaid. In fact, I don’t think anyone (other, perhaps, than their own fans) would really argue that players at Morecambe or Barnet or Hartlepool get too much money. Plenty of us, though, think players in the Premier League are.

The aim, then, was to help illustrate not just that players are well-paid, but to show just how astonishing their incomes can be – much of which is hidden by the use of a weekly figure, which suggests wrongly that they lack job security and harks back to visions of people toiling at the mill or down the pit. The weekly figure, then, helps to obscure the true scale of player wealth by denying fans a simple way of comparing a player contract with their own annual income. I used the one-year period as recognition not just that player careers are short, but the peak earning years may be even shorter.

So, I think it’s a fair counterpoint to Fifpro’s claims of borderline servitude for its members.

Fifpro didn’t agree, replying:

Now, as water-muddying exercises in the name of providing context, this is a grand achievement. It’s like a member of the British Bankers’ Association trying to refute a claim that UK investment bankers and hedge fund managers are overpaid by producing an apparently low average income figure that actually includes the earnings of cashiers in Harare and bank managers in Manila. To say that using the global median is a calculated attempt to depress the figure is, I think, an understatement. (Note, for extra irony, the provision of a source – as though sourcing a misleading stat makes it better.)

For context to Fifpro’s ‘context’, according to the most recent figures I could find, the global annual median income for all workers is: $9,733. That’s €8,912 – or 21% of what footballers make. In other words, using Fifpro’s best case scenario, footballers are paid just shy of five-times what everyone else is.

And, of course, in the top flights of the richest leagues, they can be paid hundreds of times the median wage of those countries.

I couldn’t find (though I tried and I’d be very grateful if anyone could) figures showing global annual median income by sector – so we could actually make a direct and meaningful comparison with Fifpro’s figure. I suspect, however, there would be few professions – probably not even doctors, lawyers or bankers – who could match it. Alternatively, perhaps Fifpro could provide the median salary of players in the top flight of each of the top leagues in Europe, so fans can judge for themselves about the scale of player exploitation.

Fifpro may argue, of course, that not all its members – probably not even the majority – earn fabulous salaries. Where, then, are its proposals for a solidarity payment from top earners to support those lower down? Or its campaign to force clubs and leagues to distribute money more equitably within league structures – so it trickles down to lower paid members? Or its demand for confederation-wide salary caps to prevent further inequality within its ranks? Or recognition, even, that abolishing the transfer system would put still more power and earning potential in the hands of top players? Doubtless all these measures and more will be announced soon.

For further context, at the Scottish Football Association convention at Hampden last week, Sefton Perry, Uefa’s benchmarking manager, said that across Europe an average of about 70% of club income goes on player wages – a figure he noted was without equal in any other industry that he was aware of. Not even investment banks, he said, spend more than 40-50% of their income on staff costs.

So, are there examples of players being bullied, mistreated, going unpaid or finding themselves in contractual limbo? Yes, of course. But does that mean the rather unusual employment arrangements of football players are unjust and tantamount to being treated as ‘pigs and chickens’? No. And I struggle to believe anyone could really claim otherwise. To fail to recognise the quid pro quo – that footballers can be among the world’s wealthiest people – by attempting to imply that, in fact, footballers are just bumping along like the rest of us, is shamefully misleading.

Finally, let me say, as I have many times: I support Fifpro – and, indeed, every union – in fighting for its members. Unions have been a crucial engine of social progress historically and their current weakness is, I believe, visible in zero-hours contracts, poor employment protection, wage stagnation, the end of reliable pensions and the many other transfers of cost and risk that have taken place from employer to employee over recent decades. Additionally, the people with whom Fifpro finds itself engaged in combat with – club owners, media rights holders, sponsors and football’s authorities – are parties for whom I tend to have close to zero sympathy.

But, above all that, I detest intellectual dishonesty. What Fifpro is doing might be excused by many as just PR; a necessary part of the ongoing battle to secure for its members what others would take from them. But I’d rather give it the other name we use for trying to influence people by putting out information that you must know to be misleading.

Football has been run by the dishonest and the corrupt for so long that it’s well past time someone gave a lead, taking the high ground and presenting practical, equitable reform proposals based on sound logic and evidence.

And shouldn’t the people who do that be the players? The people without whom there is, literally, no football?

 

Martin Calladine

If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.

 

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