Writing about Serge Aurier and the responsibility of football clubs, Jon Mackenzie gets something off his chest that has been bothering him for weeks.
“There are the things you do because it’s your passion,” declared David Cameron in a speech in 2010. “Things that fire you up in the morning, that drive you, that you truly believe will make a real difference to the country you love, and my great passion is building the big society.” Of course, six years later, with his premiership lying in tatters in the aftermath of Britain’s EU referendum, it became patently obvious that the soon-to-be-ex-Prime-Minister’s idea of a Big Society wasn’t even compelling enough to recommend the idea of a union of European countries to the people of the United Kingdom.
Now gallons (or should I say litres now?) of ink have been spilled in the attempt to explain why it might have been that the oh-so-recently-darling “progressive” wing of the Conservative Party in conjunction with the other Remain-leaning factions of British governance should so badly judge the mood of the people on Europe. In spite of this outpouring of ideas by the besuited and bespectacled columnists of the British press, the simple fact is that the slow creep of the neo-liberal ideology towards a government shaved as small as it will go in favour of the gods of the market has occasioned a large-scale deferral of responsibility in politics the effects of which we are only just beginning to see. What is articulated in David Cameron’s Big Society speech in 2010 is now writ large on British society: as a political individual, you can no longer rely on government for the advancement of the society you want—you are now responsible for this advancement yourself.
This is, so the logic goes, democratisation at its finest: the constitutional implementation of that saccharine slogan ‘be the change that you want to see in the world’. If you want to start up a choral group in your local village, don’t wait for one appear—start one yourself. If you want to inaugurate a walking football competition in your area—do it yourself. At this end of the spectrum at least, the idea seems lovely: a throwback to a collective society that hasn’t ever really existed except within the minds of those Little England tick-in-the-boxes that Tory Party relies on for its vote share.
Very rapidly, though, the idea of Big Society becomes something more sinister. If you want to found a charity which supports the strangely-proliferating number of homeless people in your area—start one yourself. If you want to feed those people who are struggling to feed themselves and their families despite working full-time jobs—have you ever heard of food banks? In fact, the very first opportunity that the Big Society had to mobilise in Cameron’s Britain was in the wake of the London riots of 2011. Want to help sort out the mess caused by the people protesting the shooting of black man by the police? Well grab a brush and sweep!
At its core, Big Society involves a deferral of responsibility. The government uses a sleight of hand which looks positive to the individual—“you too can be involved in the Big Society!”—but which is, in fact, an evasion of their own responsibility. Whose responsibility is it that people in full-time work cannot afford to feed themselves? Surely the government who allows the minimum wage to fall to unworkable levels? But by making the solution to this problem a societal thing, the government pass the buck on in such a way that they escape blame. “This is a societal problem”, they say. “We must solve it as a society.” Or to put it more correctly, the problem is now the responsibility of the people.
It goes without saying that once this deferral has been made within a system of governance, governance itself becomes far easier. Divested of obligation, the government is no longer held accountable for the same sorts of services that previous generation saw as fundamental to their remit. Ironically enough, the deferral of responsibility downwards results in a far less sanguine existence for the people in the lower echelons of society. The great democratisation that neo-liberalism preaches, then, comes at a price: the price of the protection of those basic fundamentals of human existence—a fair wage, a home, health care, etc., etc.
“What does any of this have to do with Serge Aurier?” you might ask. Well. The creeping logics of neo-liberalism which have pervaded Western goverments have also permeated the board rooms of football clubs around the country so that a similar deferral of responsibility has occurred in football: a handing over of responsibility from clubs, owners, board members to the fans themselves.
The arguments about Serge Aurier don’t need to be rehashed here: they are already well-rehearsed. Needless to say, the former-Paris St Germain full back has had a colourful past involving an instance of violent assault on a police officer as well as a number of media rants, one of which included a number of homophobic slurs about his manager at the time, Laurent Blanc. Now it goes without saying that all forms of homophobia must be eradicated from the game and no excuse trucked for such behaviour. But this particular case was further complexified by the fact that, during a summer break in which they lost Kyle Walker for a princely £45m plus £5m add-ons, Tottenham came knocking: they wanted Aurier to fill the Walker-shaped hole in their back line.
As far as we are concerned here, the basic moral conundrum about whether or not a homophobic player should or shouldn’t be brought into a football team is not of particular interest. There are already better written pieces out there that attempt to hash out this debate. What concerns us is the more fundamental behaviour of the club as it conducts its business. For regardless of how you approach the problem, the Serge Aurier case shows us an interesting point about the way that football clubs achieve their ends.
A couple of days after the Aurier signing went through, a post appeared on the homepage of the Proud Lilywhites—the Official LGBT Supporters Association. “We were initially unhappy with the signing,” it read. “But given our positive dialogue with the Club we would like to use this as an opportunity to build bridges and make lasting change.” What followed was an entirely gracious response to a player who had made no efforts to show any grace to the LGBT community. Emphasising “the power [of football] to transform individuals’ lives and entire communities”, the post went on to remind the reader that, “At its best, [football] doesn’t merely delight us: it can provide us with a chance to transcend geographical boundaries and learn to work and play and celebrate together.” In light of this fact and the fact that “one of [the Proud Lilywhites] main tools for change is education”, the group welcomed the idea that “engagement with LGBT+ fans is at the top of Serge’s list”. “Welcome to the famous Tottenham Hotspur Serge,” it ended. “We look forward to you getting to know us.”
But what is easy to overlook in this entirely magnanimous response is the specific chronology that it suggests. The club signed the player before inviting the supporters association the opportunity to ‘dialogue’. At the end of that process of dialogue, the Proud Lilywhites extended an olive branch to Serge Aurier in the good faith that his declarations of contrition were authentic which, I’m sure we all agree, we hope is the case.
Presented in this way, the deferral of responsibility that we see in contemporary government finds itself mirrored in the every-day workings of one the biggest football clubs in the world. Whose problem is Serge Aurier? The clubs? Or the fans? Spurs left no doubt as to how they answered the question: this was a problem of the fans. It was up to them to decide the solution which, in this case, worked out a dream for them.
But what if things had been different? What if the Proud Lilywhites had come out in condemnation of Serge Aurier and the club? What then?
In this case, the deferral of responsibility that Spurs had implemented as a sleight of hand would have been shown up for what it was: a complete lack of accountability on their own part. Face with the question “Should we purchase a player at the risk of alienating a not-insignificant portion of our fan base?” they answered with a resounding “Fuck it! Results are more important than our fans so let’s wing it and throw the conundrum to the supporters!” But why should it be the case that the moral obligation be passed on to the fans? When did obligation of the clubs to their supporters become subsidiary to on-field success?
The very fact that the answer to this question is so palpably obvious that it makes the question rhetorical is instructive. It’s because of money, we know. Money complicates things. It was money that ripped the heart out of the authentic experience of football fandom around the world. It was money that rendered FIFA next-to-useless for the last few decades. It was money that led to the next World Cup being bequeathed to Russia and the subsequent one to Qatar in spite of the human rights abuses that go unquestioned in both countries.
Lest this becomes a dewy-eyed nostalgia for a better time, it must be reiterated that money also brought with it huge advantages to football. But, to co-opt the saying, with great money comes great responsibility. The dialogue between Tottenham Hotspurs and their LGBT+ fans should have begun well in advance of Serge Aurier actually arriving at the club—if not before the transfer had even been considered as protocol. The dialogue about playing World Cups in Russia and Qatar should have been opened up to the fans well in advance of any vote rather than leaving supporters with a post hoc ethical dilemma on their hands. It is not fair that the people who have grown fabulously rich through football should sleep soundly in their beds whilst those of us who love the beautiful game lie awake running through the possibilities.
Of course, it should come as no surprise to us that capitalism has a funny way of covering its own back. But for too long now, we have simply shouldered the moral burden whenever the demagogues of football have passed it over to us. It is high time we started fighting back.
Jon Mackenzie has a portfolio career which includes freelance journalism, cryptic crossword setting, bar tending and lecturing at universities, amongst other things. You can follow his tweets @Jon_Mackenzie and read his writes at jonmackenzie.com.