West Bromwich Albion and Manchester United wore black armbands on Saturday as a sign of respect to the three men who died in an incident related to riots in Birmingham. That was what appeared in match reports, anyway. The bleak reality doesn’t make such good copy: in a growing trend, two businesses that cut ties with local communities long ago made an empty gesture – wore the armband - to enhance their ‘caring’ brand.
But the truth is football clubs don’t care about their local communities, don’t care about the ordinary man on the street. How can they when their actions scream selfish? For ‘selfish’ read that ticket prices rise with complete disregard for a rocky economy, players hop clubs and make a mockery of fan loyalty, and player’s pay packets speak of a complete disconnection with the people who fund them. The people who supposedly care so much for their communities that they field teams wearing black armbands have allowed ticket prices to rise – in one case – by up to 920% in the last 20 years – that is the context which a black armband gripped Wayne Rooney’s bicep.
Top level football isn’t about fans and community. Since the Premier League began and perhaps before, it has been about profiteering. Pretending to care is just an exercise in branding, an exercise in disguising the game’s insatiable thirst for cash - ironically, in the hope that those with cash to give, will give even more, almost as if giving more cash somehow made them at one with the club’s ethical stance. With the armbands and the minute’s silences and the charitable donations – which, let’s face it, could be so much more – football clubs would have us believe they care; they tell us they want to help their communities, help the world - yet with every other action they take, it’s clear they really just want our money – and ever more of it - and will do anything to get it. So, the football clubs as corporate entities don’t care, but neither do the players.
To be fair, how can they? Armband inflation means a black armband for a new cause practically every week – how better to reassure us that they – the clubs and the players - are in touch with the world - and how better to prove to us that they are worth investing in? But it is a different matter as to what the armbands mean to the people wearing them. Watching them stand around the centre circle on Saturday, mourning the tragedy of lost lives, it is difficult not to feel that to the Manchester United players who weeks earlier stood posing with luxurious watches both occasions were just one more menial task to be gotten through as part of being a professional football player.
It is difficult to blame the players, though, for their part in The Great Pretence. Boys with a talent for shaping a cross remain unlikely to excel in directing a moral compass, though that does not make their brushes with the law any easier to forgive. Cogs in the corporate machines they may be, but their main crime is apathy, which is more benign than anything their clubs are doing. Far more culpable are the media covering the show-we-care-circus. To the media, everything is a story. Therefore this week’s football response to young men tragically killed in rioting makes an interesting piece, filled with moral worthiness, just as last week’s idle speculation about Luka Modric’s move to Chelsea made for 800 words. Either way, the hits are in the bag, the money is pocketed and onto the next story.
Football news is as big a business as the merchandise and the match days. Content is valuable and in that world there isn’t room for genuine sentiment. Where transfer rumours appear alongside a discourse on racism in football, covering the story, meaningful or insignificant, is about generating hits – about generating cash. Where the touching obituary of a great man begins to look convincing, there is always the flashing advert for shaving cream to remind the reader of the place it was written from. The only real angle is profit.
The hypocrisy of it is a nasty business. On the Manchester United Foundation’s website, Sir Alex Ferguson is quoted as saying that "Through working in partnerships, Manchester United Foundation will develop our youngsters so that they are able to acquire qualities which will remain with them through life - being positive, believing in themselves, working hard and recognising the importance of team work." Presumably the teamwork philosophy did not endorse the bailout of former sponsors AIG, a multimillion pound company, using US taxpayer’s money. Clubs are happy to say one thing and endorse another, and the emphasis is always on the one which offers most cash.
So, Manchester United doesn’t care, and above all football doesn’t care. Perhaps the time has come to, at least, cut the pretence. The black armbands can’t be taken seriously until we see them backed up with anything but rhetoric and measly donations.
Ethan co-edits Surreal Football