LONDON — By Saturday afternoon, after three weeks of impasse, after hearing their morals questioned by politicians and witnessing their clubs start to line up for government bailouts, the players of the Premier League decided to take matters into their own hands.
The captains of the league’s 20 clubs, as well as many of its managers and several executives, dialed into a videoconference meeting with the aim of establishing a collective position on a subject that has threatened to turn the English public against English soccer at a time of national crisis.
Somehow, as the country’s death toll from the coronavirus pandemic has started to mount, the issue of whether the stars of the Premier League — the richest domestic soccer tournament on the planet and one of Britain’s proudest cultural exports — should take a pay cut has moved front and center.
How soccer — which was placed on indefinite hiatus in England on March 13 — has found itself cast as one of the villains of the crisis speaks volumes not only about the political reality of the game in England but also of the singular role it plays in the national psyche.
Now, clubs accustomed to the unyielding loyalty of fans have managed to alienate even their most ardent followers. Players, more accustomed to being seen as heroes, have been accused not only of failing to help their teams stanch losses, but of the much more serious offense of not offering financial support to Britain’s overworked health service.
In the space of three weeks, a discussion that started with the question of how the richest domestic soccer league in the world will ride out the economic impact of the shutdown has led to its stars starting their own initiative — independent of their clubs — to funnel part of their salaries straight to the National Health Service.
It did not start out like this. Talks over what role the players might have in alleviating the virus’s financial impact on the clubs that pay their salaries began in the middle of March, just a few days after the postponement of the Premier League season.
At first, the process was relatively straightforward, essentially a discussion between employers, concerned about a sudden cash-flow crisis, and their best-paid employees.
Officials from the Premier League’s London headquarters, acting on behalf of the clubs, and representatives from the players’ union, the Professional Footballers Association, gathered in a virtual meeting room, joined by executives from the League Managers Association, an umbrella group for coaches, and the English Football League, the governing body for the three lower-tier professional leagues.
All involved thought those talks had progressed positively enough.
The Premier League initially suggested that all of its players take a 15 percent salary cut for the rest of the year; it claimed its clubs needed to save 280 million pounds, or $347 million, in order to make up for lost revenue. The union said it would be able to make a decision only if it saw each team’s financial forecast.
They cycled through various suggestions — a 25 percent cut and a 15 percent deferral, suggested by the league; no cuts, but a series of deferrals, proposed by the union. Then they focused on a combination of cuts and deferrals that amounted to a figure of 30 percent, for a year, that could be reduced depending on how much of their losses the clubs could claw back.
That seemed to form the outline of an eventual agreement. But on March 31, Tottenham Hotspur followed Newcastle United’s lead and placed most of its non-playing staff on furlough, effectively asking the British government, in accordance with public welfare laws, to pay 80 percent of their salaries for the next three months. The remainder would simply go unpaid. A few days later, Liverpool made the same announcement, before being forced to backtrack.
Tottenham’s move was greeted with derision and anger — not just from fans, but from players, too. It was the moment a commercial negotiation suddenly morphed into something far larger and far more damaging to all sides: a conversation, in essence, about soccer’s role and responsibilities in public life.
A group of athletes, led by the Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson, had already been discussing setting up a charitable fund to help the National Health Service. Others, including the Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford, had started private initiatives to help provide meals to underprivileged children.
But now, through some trick of the light, what they gave back to society became firmly enmeshed with what they were prepared to give back to their clubs.
Many of the players felt that Tottenham’s decision was an attempt to back them into a corner, forcing them to take a pay cut or risk appearing greedy, aloof and out of touch during the pandemic. To some extent, it worked: Two days later, the country’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, urged players to “play their part” by taking a pay cut.
Julian Knight, a Conservative Party lawmaker, linked players’ pay to health care workers, saying that “the first thing Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut, and play their part,” given the “sacrifices” being made by front-line workers in the health service.
The players, though, did not see the link between those two things quite so clearly. They wanted to help, but wondered if doing so with a pay cut — rather than direct donations — might simply save money for their team owners, rather than benefiting the health service. Their salaries are taxed, after all; any cut would lead to a reduction of income for the treasury, and ultimately, the N.H.S.
That situation was complicated by the role of the players’ union, led by its longstanding chief executive, Gordon Taylor, who is thought to be the highest-paid trade union leader in the world. The union works not just for Premier League players; it also represents the interests of the hundreds of professionals farther down soccer’s pyramid.
Its concern, in negotiations, was that any agreement with the Premier League might later be copied for use in the lower leagues, where salaries are markedly lower. Its priority was to protect members who could not afford to take a pay cut, or who had already received missives from clubs commanding them to accept a reduced salary.
Indeed, Taylor — who has said he will not take a cut in his annual wage of 2 million pounds ($2.5 million) — initially refused even to countenance the idea of players’ accepting a cut, rather than a deferral. The position, put to him by the clubs, particularly those in the lower tiers, was stark: There would be either no cut now or no salaries at all when teams start to go under.
By Friday, the battle lines had been drawn. When the parties regrouped for another call, there was little hope of resolution. The Premier League had commanded its clubs not to act unilaterally. A collective solution had to be found to help stem losses that could amount to $1 billion and that had required the league to forward millions in emergency funding to clubs coping with a cash-flow crisis.
The union by then had doubled down on its position: Any pay cut, it said in a statement after yet another round of talks, would be detrimental to the health system. Yet again, the fate of the health service was portrayed as a central plank in discussions over soccer players’ salaries.
Unsurprisingly, the two sides failed to find any common ground, and so the players decided to circumvent the formal discussions, arranging a meeting of their own. A few days later, they reached their conclusion: The players on Wednesday revealed an initiative called Players Together, releasing a statement that declared a goal of quickly “granting funds to the front line” of the health service.
The players must hope that move will not only help in the way it was intended, but also put an end to the public backlash, and to the easy depiction of them as feckless and greedy. But that cannot, at a stroke, solve the problems caused by three weeks of rancor.
The players still feel let down by their clubs and unfairly exposed by their employers. The Premier League, and its constituent clubs, must still find a way to cut costs in the face of a looming financial calamity. The players’ union has been made to seem, at least in public, scarcely relevant.
Most of all, though, the worry will be that the damage, to some extent, is done. Hancock tweeted on Wednesday night that the players were, in his view, now “playing their part.” Whether the rest of the country remembers it that way remains to be seen. After three weeks of war, it is possible everyone has come out losing.
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