Football is an unfair playing field for smaller clubs but there is hope | Grimsby

The “free market” is a dangerous lie. All systems are bounded by the choices we make on both a societal and individual basis. Seeing Fulham and Bournemouth promoted to the Premier League confirmed this idea and embeds the narrative that money is the competitive advantage in football. That they are beneficiaries of “parachute payments”, in a league where most clubs rely on the support of wealthy benefactors to underwrite their losses, further confirms that change is necessary if the game has any chance to retain any semblance of moral authority.

There is, of course, no suggestion that Fulham or Bournemouth are corrupt or immoral. It’s the dangerous narrative of the “free market” that needs changing and the people to change it are not those currently in power as it is a narrative that serves the “elites” in both society and sport.

The current mythology presupposes that we live in a meritocracy and those at the top in terms of sporting success, wealth or business are there because of hard work and ability alone. Whilst these are undoubtedly necessary conditions of success they are not sufficient. More important is how we benefit from embedded advantages of the systems we operate in. In football terms, that would be those who happen to have been around the Premier League at the time of its inception and for the last 20 years. On an individual basis, that is those who benefit from the accidents of birth across gender, ethnicity or wealth.

In his book A Theory of Justice, the philosopher John Rawls asks, what principles would we choose to govern our society if we had to choose from behind a “veil of ignorance”. Rawls’ thought experiment asks us to think about how we would treat all people in our society if we had cognition prior to birth but knew nothing about the life we will be born into across any dimension of class, race, sex etc. It seems obvious that when we take into consideration the randomness of our birth that we would only permit social and economic inequalities as long as they were to the advantage of the least well off because that could just as easily be any of us. The fact I was born white and male in Grimsby and not otherwise is completely arbitrary.

I have been thinking about Rawls in relation to the health of our society or our football leagues. For the system to be fair, it has to be judged on how we treat everyone in the system rather than the winner takes all mentality we are seeing in both broader society and our sport. Rawls also had something to say on intuition as a guide to moral choices and surely no one can think that it is fair that Fulham can pay their top striker Aleksander Mitrovic a reported £3m per year while Peterborough have to sell their top striker, Siriki Dembélé, to survive.

In all of this, there is hope. The government has declared it is supportive of the recommendations from the fan led review authored by Tracey Crouch MP. The most important items in that review are the need for an independent regulator, someone who can enforce a better flow of funding throughout the football pyramid, for a broader definition of who can be owners and directors of football clubs and for greater fan involvement in decisions that affect the future viability of clubs. It seems clear from statements by both the government and EFL that the Premier League have no interest in updating the financial arrangements to support lower leagues further. The arguments the Premier League makes are symptomatic of the inequality in broader society, where you can easily compare the Premier League with the “elites” in our society.

The Premier League and the top earners in our country both believe that the success and wealth they create is entirely down to their own brilliance and personal endeavour. I see this again and again when I meet wealthy people who often feel like they have earned their wealth through hard work and ingenuity alone and see no need to offer up further support through more progressive taxation. The issue about inequality is how people disregard the benefits of being part of historically robust systems and years of investment in making those systems work. Jeff Bezos didn’t invent the internet his business is built on, pay for the schools his employees are educated in or tarmac the roads that delivery trucks drive on but his wealth is built on all of them.

Likewise, those who now sit at the top of the football tree derive their success at least partially on the 100 plus years of organised football in our country and the contributions made by the Grimsbys, Port Vales and Stockports as much as the Arsenals, Manchester Uniteds and Liverpools. When the arguments are being made most disregard the fact that football clubs sit in such lofty positions today because of all that has gone before them or that people are often successful at least in part due to the advantages of their birth and the systems they are born into.

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The other argument I see being made against greater solidarity across football or society is that existing systems are wasteful or too bureaucratic. In football terms, so many clubs are loss making because the current incentives reward overspending. Gary Neville and the team at Salford were pilloried for losing £91,000 a week but they are obviously only trying to do what is best for their club. The problem is not that owners will spend, it is that the system is unbounded and drives up wage demands across the board. If we made it a precondition of ownership that clubs cannot run up such losses then the system can police itself.

A mentor of mine used to tell me “deals only really work if they work for everyone”. I think this is true in all parts of life. It’s time to rethink the narratives we tell ourselves if we want our game and our society to flourish. We need to take a longer view of what football clubs mean to our communities and create ethical boundaries that serve all stakeholders and not just those who hold the money today. These decisions are too important to leave solely to those in boardrooms or in the higher tax brackets.

Jason Stockwood is the chairman of Grimsby Town

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