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Cooking the Books 2: Footballers’ wages

When last December Richard Caborn, the Minister for Sport, suggested that limits should be placed on the income of professional footballers, Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said that he wouldn’t be against a limit on all incomes but would be against applying this just to footballers:

“You can’t say that a sportsman should have a limited amount of income but a banker should get a £15 million bonus as he’s a stockbroker who make a lot of money . . . We live in a world where the richest 50 people own 48 per cent of the riches of the whole earth. But do we just limit the salaries of footballers who normally come out of poor backgrounds – and you normally need special qualities to be a strong footballer?” (Times, 31 December).

It was a fair debating point, but economics is not about who is the most deserving of a high income. Bankers, stockbrokers and other fat cats who award themselves huge bonuses are indeed useless parasites. Because they control a capitalist business they are able to siphon off, at the expense of other shareholders, a part of the profits for their own personal benefit in the form of a bloated “salary”.

Footballers at least start from the same position as the rest of us: not owning any wealth from which to obtain an unearned income, to obtain what they need to live they have to go out on to the labour market and offer their mental and physical energies for sale. Most professional footballers, working for clubs in the lower divisions or for non-league clubs, never earn anything more than the average worker.

But some, those who play for the first teams of clubs (rather, businesses) in the Premier League, are paid fabulous amounts of money, by working class (if not capitalist class) standards. What is their income? Is it wages? Not really. It’s more like rent. Rent is paid whenever there is a natural monopoly in something that cannot be increased, normally land, mineral deposits, waterfalls and other natural features that can be employed in production. The rent of land and natural resources is essentially fixed by the paying demand for it. The higher the demand, the higher the rent.

As Arsène Wenger pointed out, “you normally need special qualities to be a strong footballer”. It is these “special qualities – which are a sort of natural resource that cannot be increased – that enable the best footballers to command so high an income, but as rent rather than as the price for the mere sale of their labour power. Their income is so high because the demand for their talents is so high, Premier League football being Big Business with, thanks to television, a huge market.

Wenger was right to draw attention to the fact that we live in a world of inequality. That is a natural consequence of the workings of capitalism. Socialists want a world of equality, but this is not one where everybody has an equal income. On the contrary, it would be a world where nobody had a monetary income, large, small or equal, but where everybody would have an equal say in the way things are run and an equal right to satisfy their needs. And one in which, while there would still be (amateur) footballers, there’d be no bankers or stockbrokers.