Why have we allowed this unmitigated football gluttony?

The lesson of the "they've paid 62 quid a ticket" linesman: there will be no dissent in sport's plutocratic playground.

After witnessing Arsenal once again succumb to one of the Premier League's many sporting mafias, this time Man City - whose trademark is a uniquely tacky blend of conspicuous consumption with the sprinkling of a Middle Eastern business despot's Midas touch, and whose team resembles a crudely assembled professional footballer human centipede, stuck together with molten bullion and the harvested tears extracted from the children of less financially well endowed clubs, clubs unable to compete within a financial nuclear arms race that seeks to accumulate the best footballer human capital on the planet…but I digress - a symbolic media event occurred.

A post match video soon emerged of a blasphemous linesman, John Brooks, angering the plutocratic gatekeepers of football's money cult. His crime? Merely bearing witness to an empirical reality: that away fans had paid 62 quid for the privilege of the ball-centred spectacle, and that players would be better off spending time celebrating with them than with himself, a humble linesman.

This is hard to deny. A 2011 study by Dave Boyle for the High Pay Centre found that the cheapest ticket to watch Manchester United in 1989 cost £3.50 – with a Liverpool ticket costing £4 and Arsenal £5. Adjusted for inflation, those tickets would still have been under £10 in 2011. Instead they went up between 700 per cent and 1,025 per cent, or as one senior Premier League club executive morally pronounced, "we maximise every seat for the highest amount we can get". So there! Yet as soon as the media latched on to the linesman video, the evident implication even as they silently relayed the footage without commentary was clear; the linesman's words were an underhanded attack on money in football. The response to this "transgression" by football's financial demigods was depressingly predictable.

After seeing the video I tweeted:

"This linesman is a hero, although I can't help but think he might take a figurative bullet for this comment..."

And sure enough, the next day or so, with horrible inevitability, the Sun's headline read:

"62 pound lino axed - The Professional Game Match Officials Limited removed the assistant from the third round clash at the Hawthorns and replaced him..."

So first of all praise be to Funnell, I am Nostradamus reincarnate. But secondly, how marvellous that the lino John Brooks, a man actually employed to uphold fairness and competition in the game, is effectively sacked for merely alluding to a commonly recognised injustice - obscene ticket prices - within the un-mucked-out zoo that football has become. In the aftermath to the incident it was widely reported by Sky Sports, the Sun and the Guardian that John Brook had been stood down for his next fixture as “punishment” for his remarks. Yet in the days that followed the organisation Professional Game Match Officials (PGMO) claimed it wasn’t a “punishment” but was to remove him from the limelight because he's young. This excuse is dubious at best. Why is it necessary to remove a linesman from the limelight who has expressed a popular sentiment? Fear of abusive praise from cash strapped fans? Does a linesman who possesses a disinclination for high ticket prices pose a threat to impartiality in his adjudicating? More over, if this linesman can’t handle the limelight, then why is he employed by the Premier League to work in some of most toxic pressure cooker situations on the planet?

So naturally, who were the finders of this biggest scoop since the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? Of course, none other than Sky Sports, who dutifully picked up on the story in their vintage shit stirrer style, jabbing their cameras and microphones in to the private post match formalities like an unauthorised colonoscopy and discovering the offending utterances. After all, this is Sky's self-ordained role in football. They've funded the games inglorious decline in to financial obscenity, pumping it full of coinage like a foie gras goose with all the predictable undesirable consequences: arsehole egomaniacal footballers, terrible ostentatious hair styles, diving and of course, most fundamentally, the cleansing of historically working class communities which originally gave football a soul and sense of meaning. Such folk are now priced out of stadiums, or bankrupted for the pleasure, due to a combination of the Premiers League's documented End Game: to open football to the middle classes, coupled with exponential rises in players wages that demand increased ticket revenues. This trend was set in motion by the authorisation of unrelenting competition in the player market (no wage caps) and endless increases in TV rights payments, which allows players to plead "please sir, I want some more" year after year. The Premier League has essentially, insidiously, presided over football shape shifting in to an unregulated wild west to fill the troths of the rich and, as is custom, human solidarity and general decency are the first victims to fall. After all, the premier league themselves have stated that they are "an association of interests" (financial) who have allegiance to "shareholders". So thanks SKY and the Premier League - two thumbs up.

Yet this is completely consistent within our paradigm of "the market is inherently good" in which any squalid outcome, no matter how much it self evidently offends our better judgements as sentient beings, is not only correct, but holy and inevitable. The market has spoken, Allah, Rand, Thatcher, Reagan, Greenspan be praised! Now, as the grotesque spectacle unfolds in front of us all - with Harry Redknapp only this week describing football agents parasitic behaviour as reminiscent of "gang warfare" - Sky skip around gleefully like Willy Wonka directing his own big budget porno. Sky document the decadent carnage they've helped to unleash on a handheld camera, then audaciously sell a self created scandal involving a linesman acknowledging high ticket prices (therefore their enemy) like fish food to the dribbling (and once again paying) masses via their sister news outlets. Thus Sky is the ultimate self-sustaining profit shit machine and make no mistake, despite the economic apologists protestations, football is worse for it, just ask John Brooks.

My nostalgia for football's good old 'the grass was greener before Sky' aside, what does this case illustrate about sport and football today? For me it's simple; football's foundations are rotten from the saturation of the corrupting capital it's hooked to like a crack addict; it's incredibly undemocratic and its authorities are shockingly unaccountable and unrepresentative (The FA Council has only one female member for example). The whole purpose of the game now is unfettered subservience to profit making mechanisms and its self proclaimed right to endless growth by extracting from fans, one overpriced hotdog at a time. As such, dissent, even from an obscure linesman (who didn't strike me as a part time Socialist Worker seller) is unacceptable.  Yet his nonchalant ticket price reference was a symbolic affront to the financial monopolists and cronies that dictate and own the now ugly game. Too much is at stake for this kind of '62 quid a ticket' insubordination to stand and when real power structures in our society are challenged, however subtly  (in football or elsewhere) the consequences are swift and brutal. Because sympathetic sentiments lamenting the plundering of sports fans' wallets could feasibly lead to sustained protests, reform, revolution! Sparks have to be extinguished before they blow up the fireworks, and so the linesman got whacked JFK style; Sky's camera may as well have been a sniper rifle.

And yet none of this is at all surprising. A few weeks ago the respected American Sports hack, Dave Zirin, said on Democracy Now "sport is like a weather vane for the wider political and economic culture". He's right, and so sport serves as an early warning system for the rapid decay of our communities, who continue their unstoppable free fall in to the cold grasp of an unholy alliance between profiteers and their unaccountable apparatchiks they both breed and depend upon. We need to reclaim football and subject it to a little idea called 'direct democracy' (a little bit like the Germans) and stop privatised tyrannies holding the reigns to something that should belong to us all and rightly or not elicits so much emotion.

Even today as I finish this article I notice Britain's most radical revolutionary body, the UK Parliament, has released a document calling for measures in the spirit of what I’ve described. When parliament acknowledges there's a problem with something, you know it be must rotten and its reform probably should have occurred decades ago; the UK Parliament, the eternal sea anchor to any meaningful progressive change in anything.

But for allowing this unmitigated football gluttony we must look at ourselves. As an executive of Supporters Direct put it: "Clubs have continued to exploit this reservoir of goodwill, but we have to ask ourselves whether we're prepared to continue to allow that to happen." If we don't take ownership of our democracy in sport, the economy, or civil society, we tend to become owned by others. So we must ask ourselves, why do we collectively express false outrage at drug doping cheats, and yet wilfully turn a blind eye to the greatest sports enhancing drug of all, money? John Brooks speaks for us all and he should be defended as such.

Editor's note: this article originally included a quote from a former executive of Supporters Direct; it has been updated to include a more current perspective.

A young Manchester City supporter sits among the flags at The Etihad stadium in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images
Getty.
Show Hide image

Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.