March 15, 2011 § 4 Comments
When it comes to my job, I am highly disposable. While my position requires certain levels of education, qualification, experience, knowledge and ability, there are plenty of people who could replace me. So, while my employers can’t sack me unless I fuck up in one way or another, either in relation to my performance or conduct, they would have no hesitation in doing so if I did. If I were, say, to shoot one of my colleagues, I would be promptly and correctly dismissed.
Ashley Cole, on the other hand, is one of the best left-backs in the world.
A simple calculus of social equality is the idea that for any given transgression (social, criminal, whatever), the punishment would remain consistent should the roles of victim and perpetrator be reversed. Yet it seems immediately obvious that were a work experience lad to empty an air rifle into Cole, he would lose his job faster than he could say “Is this thing loaded?” or “Oops,” or “That was for Cheryl, you adulterous bastard!”
The problem is not that Premier League footballers are “above the law”, as such (this is not about whether or not Cole should have been arrested, charged, or prosecuted. Not being in possession of the full facts, any comment on this would be wholly inappropriate). But as a result of their abilities they are often above the consequences; they don’t have to cope with the fallout from their cock-ups the way us poor normal people would. Rather like pampered Bourbon princelings, their perceived significance means that their transgressions (social, criminal, whatever) are to be disregarded, downplayed, or hushed up where possible. Their utility is rare and therefore precious, and must not be affected by the normal social conventions regarding the shooting of colleagues.
It might be suggested, of course, that football is simply just reflecting more general social inequities: steal £100 from the till at work and you’ll end up in the police station; divert millions of pounds of taxation through your Monaco-dwelling wife and you’ll end up as a special adviser to the government. As a rule, the richer you are, the lighter the consequences. Yet this is less to do with social injustice as it is to do with how clubs treat their players: as assets, not as people.
For football clubs, like all good capitalist enterprises, have recognised that adopting an even-handed approach towards the transgressions (social, criminal, whatever) of their employees is to potentially dull their competitive edge. Punishment is measured not only in terms of the transgression but also in terms of the utility (read: value) of the transgressor. The logical consequence of this is that a footballer as good as Ashley Cole essentially has untouchable tenure in almost every circumstance excepting, presumably, any indiscretion that might diminish his utility or prevent him from servicing the needs of the team for a significant period of time. (Practically, this probably means a prison sentence or a drugs ban, where it also identified the player is no longer wanted or needed, or can be easily replaced.)
This is not a po-faced polemical demand for the immediate dismissal, flogging, and pelting with elderly tomatoes of any footballer who steps out of line. On the contrary, a football club can have an important pastoral role to play in the rehabilitation of the individual, particularly in the case of young footballers, who often come from those parts of society that Conservative governments prefer not to think about too hard. But it is more-or-less inarguable that players and fans have drifted further and further apart, and the fundamental reason for this, fuelled by the ludicrous accumulation of wealth and subsequent assumption of status, is the diminishing capacity for empathy.
Once upon a time, all that separated the greatest English players from the fans was talent, and the whitewashed line. Now they are distant silhouettes behind tinted windows, the other side of the velvet ropes; their fundamental Otherness reinforced every time we sigh at £200 packs of cigarettes, or chortle at a forgotten Porsche, or reflect that a Premier League footballer can shoot a colleague with an air rifle and receive nothing more than a finger-wag, a raised eyebrow, and a week or so of internet susurrus. Cole’s right to shoot the staff is symptomatic of a class of player utterly divorced from the realities of normal life, the kind of life enjoyed and endured by most of the fans. Indeed, Cole might be considered something of a poster boy for this kind of empathic collapse, given his notorious and hilarious outrage at the inadequacy of a wage proposal nudging £3 million per annum.
As such, it is hardly surprising that footballers are held in ever-increasing contempt. If we feel no empathic connection with the players, why should we forgive them when they fail? Why should we elide their poor performances? They are not us, and we are not them. In a social context, your identity is not only determined by your own actions but by those around you.
The space between Them and Us is reinforced by the alternately sycophantic and scornful press, by the utility-obsessed indulgence of the clubs, by agents and sponsors and the endless drip, drip, drip of money, money, money. Is it any surprise that fans look out at their supposed heroes and see nothing but victory or defeat; only feel able to salute or scorn? In the absence of shared human experience, a footballer is just a means to an end, to be lauded, or mocked, accordingly.