Overwork and millennial burnout are blighting elite sports. Even rich athletes are exploited

From cricket World Cup winners and super-rich footballers to tennis players struggling on the tour, sports men and women are relentlessly exploited for their labour 

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Four years ago, when England played in the 2015 men’s Cricket World Cup, their players were allowed almost a full month off before their next assignment, a tour of the West Indies. This was down to two main reasons. First it was winter, traditionally a quieter time of the year for English cricketers, and a hefty rest period had already been built in. Second, England did themselves a terrific favour by getting knocked out of the tournament at the group stage, thus cannily granting themselves the maximum relaxation time.

By contrast, this summer many of England’s victorious World Cup players have already been back at work for more than a week. Such is the relentless nature of their schedule that the two most important engagements in English cricket – the World Cup and the Ashes – have been scheduled just 17 days apart. With a pre-Ashes training camp in Staffordshire and a warm-up Test against Ireland at Lord’s also squeezed in, no wonder captain Joe Root has admitted that the players are exhausted. “It’s not perfect, but you have to suck it up and get on with it,” he said.

Root’s words may well be a mantra for a disenchanted generation. If “millennial burnout” is more often used to refer to the stress induced by insecure low-paid employment, then all over the world and across a multitude of sports, young athletes are increasingly discovering that their talent and relative wealth offer little protection against being worked into the ground.

Cricket – once ostensibly a summer sport – is now a 12-month game, with a plethora of new domestic tournaments and a packed international schedule jostling messily for room in a crowded calendar. The best cricketers have not one but several different employers, each keen to sweat their prized asset. Decisions on when and how much to rest are generally left to players themselves and, given that the economics of cricket essentially incentivise them to play as much as possible, perhaps it’s not surprising that burnout is a frequent occurrence.

In football, where players are tied to a single employer, a different form of exploitation is in place. Like cricket, football’s calendar has swollen to the point where it is essentially a year-round enterprise, with international tournaments in June and July bleeding the boundaries between one season and the next. On 15 July, Manchester City flew out to China for the start of their pre-season tour. On 19 July, their winger Riyad Mahrez played for Algeria in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations: in effect, the final game of the 2018-19 season. “We are starting the season and Mahrez hasn’t finished the previous one,” City manager Pep Guardiola moaned. “It’s a crazy schedule and we’ll kill our players sooner or later.”

As City prepare to resume their bitter rivalry with Liverpool when the new Premier League season begins on 9 August, in one important aspect their two managers were in alignment. “It looks like nobody can imagine a week without football in the year,” said Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp. “A game again, a game again… The pressure is everywhere. We need to calm this down.”

Guardiola and Klopp may be two of the best coaches in the sport, but against the economic tides of football they are largely powerless. A generation ago, pre-season schedules would consist largely of a few knock-around friendlies against local amateur sides. These days, they are an essential revenue stream: Manchester United are estimated to earn in excess of £10m from their summer jaunt to Australia, China and Singapore. Klopp and Guardiola may like to whinge about player burnout. But ulti-mately, like everyone else, they too have to “suck it up and get on with it”.

Of course, footballers are handsomely rewarded for their toil, more so than any generation before them. But a large part of the average footballer’s salary is tied to incentives: appearances, goals, trophies, even fulfilling sponsors’ commitments. In many ways, this has left them more vulnerable to exploitation, not less. According to a survey by global players’ union Fifpro, international footballers said they needed an average of five weeks’ break between seasons. For all the revenue they generate, the current minimum remains just three weeks, and at some clubs it is not unknown for players to be subtly encouraged to return from their holidays even earlier to “help the team out”.

The big question is where all this might lead in the long run. Already, there is some circumstantial evidence that the age profile of elite football may be shifting downwards: the City squad that won the Premier League last season was the youngest title-winning squad for 14 years. In cricket, the increasing prevalence of freelance T20 players, criss-crossing the world chasing the latest lucrative but insecure short-term contract, echoes the growth of the gig economy. And the bloating of the tennis calendar has created an entire cadre of overworked, underpaid tour professionals, scraping a meagre living for a handful of ranking points.

Overwork and burnout are often regarded as a function of class, but perhaps it’s helpful to see them as a generational issue too. According to the Mental Health Foundation, over-55s are four times more likely than young adults to report they are unaffected by stress. And if the erosion of labour rights, the squeezing of in-work benefits and the rise of social media have created a perfect storm for disenchantment among low-waged young people, then athletes are subject to many of the same forces.

Whether you’re an exploited tech employee in China, a weary Uber driver in New York or an aching millionaire international footballer in Madrid, for young people living under modern capitalism, the principle remains the same: ultimately, your worth as a human extends no further than the immediate labour you can provide. 

Jonathan Liew is a fortnightly New Statesman columnist and chief sports writer of the Independent

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special