The problem with praising football as “the last bastion of social mobility”
by Ian Sinclair
20 May 2016
Football “remains one of the last bastions of social mobility, creating working-class millionaires by the bucketload”, Guardian columnist Marina Hyde heralded a couple of months ago.
The idea of ‘working-class-boy-done-good’ runs through a lot of British footballing popular culture and folklore, from the Roy of the Rovers comic strip to the 1996 film When Saturday Comes and modern day heroes like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. Globally, footballing greats Pele and Diego Maradona are well-known to have grown up in poverty, with the former supposedly playing with either a sock stuffed with newspaper or a grapefruit as his family couldn’t afford a ball. And it’s certainly true that working-class and ethnic minorities are over-represented in UK professional football, with the average salary in the Premier League over £1.5 million a year, according to number crunching done by the Daily Mail in February 2016.
However, these well-known and oft-repeated facts hide a number of complicating and inconvenient analyses that seriously problematize the idea of football as a site of social mobility.
First, it is important to remember the extraordinary pay in the top flight is an outlier. As the Daily Mail report noted, while Premier League pay has soared, “lower-league salaries have remained close to ordinary family incomes.” In addition, the Danish academics Sine Agergaard and Jan Kahr Sorensen note in their 2009 study of ethnic minority footballers and social mobility that “a sports career is often without financial security or structure, injuries can result in retirement as well as loss of income and even disability, and the career is short.” While the national retirement age is set to increase to 67 years old, the average retirement age for a professional footballer is 35.
To gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between football and social mobility, we need to consider why professional football teams are dominated by players from the working-class and ethnic minorities.
In Making Sense of Sports, Professor Ellis Cashmore, an academic who has spent his career studying the sociology of sport, argues “racism and racial discrimination have worked to exclude blacks from many areas of employment, restrict their opportunities and, generally, push them toward the ‘marginal’ or least important areas of the labour market”. In contrast, throughout history black men have been allowed – encouraged even – to follow two routes out of their often impoverished circumstances: through sports and entertainment. “Weighing up the possibilities of a future career, many opt for a shot at sports”, Cashmore writes, as “it can be demonstrated time and again that black people can make it to the very top and command the respect of everyone”. Cashmore’s concern here is ethnicity, though it is clear society imposes similar social and economic limits and obstacles on young working-class people.
If one buys into this explanation, the key point is this: the over-representation of ethnic minorities and the working-class in professional football, while good news for the individual players, is an outcome of low social mobility, inequality and discrimination in wider society. Sport “remains a source of hope and ambition for blacks only as long as those [wider] inequalities remain”, believes Cashmore. Therefore, if a good level of equality was achieved in society, Cashmore’s analysis suggests the number of ethnic minority and working-class players in professional football would likely decrease.
In addition, it could be argued those top footballers from poor backgrounds unintentionally create a powerful illusion. As the American writer Jack Olsen noted in his 1968 book The Black Athlete, “At most, sport has led a few thousand Negroes out of the ghetto. But for hundreds of thousands of other Negroes it has substituted a meaningless dream.” Agergaard and Sorensen make a similar case: “In the long run only a tiny proportion of the ethnic minority youths who dream of social mobility will make a decent living out of sports”. Cashmore quotes figures from the 1994 US basketball documentary film Hoop Dreams: each year 500,000 boys play high school basketball in the US, with 14,000 progressing to college level. Of these select few, only 25 percent end up playing one season of professional basketball. So just 1 in 143 high school players end up as a pro. This is not a problem in itself but the question is how many young people have ruined or, at the very least, curtailed their broader educational and career prospects by focussing all their energy and time on pursuing a professional sports career?
Hyde’s ‘football as a promoter of social mobility’ argument plays a similar role to the self-made man myth – to normalise and justify social and economic inequality by focusing on relatively rare instances of individual success. Two assumptions come hand in hand with this focus on social mobility: first, that the status quo is a working and efficient meritocracy, and therefore should be maintained, and second, that success – and failure – is largely down to individual effort, or lack of it.
More broadly, the assumption behind Hyde’s argument is that social mobility is the height of a good society, that moving out of one’s family and community circumstances is a positive and desirable outcome. A more radical understanding would arguably focus on greater equality and raising everyone’s position in society. “I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks”, US socialist Eugene Debs said in 1917. “When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”