Image representing multicultural society

Is football only a game?

Roy Clarke 26th April 2021

A lot of beer, prosecco and designer gin was spluttered and spilt last week, as the proposal of the breakaway European Super League first rose and then faltered. But oh, the outcry was deafening. The self-appointed, entitled and heavily endowed elites appeared to be pulling up the drawbridge and taking our football away with them – at least during the weekdays anyway.

So, what of the much-vaunted level playing field? What about the romance of the underdog, the meritocratic ideals that the game is supposedly built on? Indeed, what about the rest of the sport and the lower leagues that raised these giants to their lofty positions?

The illusion of meritocracy appears to be fading fast within the higher echelons of football. And with it the love affair with the notion of the plucky upstart confounding the odds and defeating Goliath on the field. I wonder why there isn’t the same outcry when we look at the picture of promotion through the ranks of society. Although, football has been a catalyst for many a working-class “rags to riches” hero story, in the general field of employment the underdog does not always fare so well.

To quote the manager of Manchester City Pep Guardiola:It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed.” (BBC Sport)

The same could be said within society. If the same type of person continually achieves the highest position, wins the promotion race, then scoops up the lion’s share of salary, then what is going on?

However, this week’s furore placed a spotlight on the morals in ensuring diversity and competition. Our ingrained unconscious bias around class can be so powerful. To achieve a level playing field leaders need to give special attention to the entry and development of groups who are traditionally overlooked or discriminated against. This extends to exploring the socioeconomic background of employees and charting their pay and progression.

We are familiar with the gender pay gap, but when workers from working-class backgrounds are compared to employees from professional backgrounds, they also suffer pay penalties. This can be as much as 35% for women in professional roles when compared to men from more affluent beginnings. So, there is a case for positive action and targeted auditing to monitor this bias.

Whilst many pundits criticised the apparent lack of competition in the American-style sports model. At least in the NFL, they have a” draft pick” system where the most gifted players graduating from college, are offered in priority order, to the lowest-achieving teams in the leagues, to try to stimulate fairer competition between teams.

In the UK there is an issue about the financial equity between teams in the Premier League. Furthermore, arguably the football governing body has done very little to ensure that the beautiful game is ethnically diverse in its leadership ranks, officials, and management positions. The Football Association still has a long way to go to afford women’s football the “level pegging” it deserves – given the historical status and interest in their game before it was banned in 1921 by the FA and then reinstated in 1969.

Who does football aim to serve? Who does the game really belong to? I found it quite moving to see the passion of the Chelsea fans barracking their club’s owners and then celebrating at the announcement of the climbdown. There is power in the collective and when it is mobilised even the “C” suite must listen.

Similarly, it is helpful to think about the question: Who do organisations aim to serve? Diversity allows firms to better understand the needs of their customers, but the relationship should go deeper than that.

One news story stood out for me during the pandemic news coverage. There was a revelation about the experience of female medical staff having ill-fitting PPE which put them at risk. Why was it ill-fitting? Because PPE equipment like gloves and face masks were designed for men in mind.

There needs to be inclusion in mind in all aspects of an organisation’s activities, including design and consultation. In that way, organisations can spot gaps in the market and innovate for a more inclusive society, based on its enhanced knowledge of the diversity of needs.

Football used to be considered a working-class sport. Whilst that pictured has changed somewhat over the years. The fans have roared their voice in unison this week. Now the government is considering how to increase the representation of fans on the executive boards of football clubs. I wonder if large organisations across the land need to consider the socio-economic make-up of their decision-making elite.

Not only do organisations benefit from diversity, but a focused effort also to break-away from the past, and close the social mobility gap, would generate more income for the UK. Now that would be a genuine win-win result.