There’s a lot of buzz in the air about the return of football in top European leagues at the moment. If you don’t live in the United Kingdom, you might have missed one of the more surprising stories to emerge from the world of football in recent weeks. It revolves around young Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford. And his intervention into a social and political issue in his home country. Specifically, he’s played in instrumental role in persuading the UK’s government to provide funding for free meals for the country’s most vulnerable children during summer months. In the process, he might have changed the stereotype of the modern footballer forever.
Since the 1990s, when enormous sums of television money started pouring into soccer’s biggest clubs, footballers have been painted as a shallow, selfish, cash-obsessed breed. The stereotype of the modern footballer is one of someone who is disloyal. They’re happy to swap their club colors so long as there’s a pay rise in it for them. They’ll accept sponsorships from whoever wants to offer them cash. They treat women badly, party too hard between games, and generally behave in a manner that suggests that they’re the center of their own universe.
Selfish footballers are often demonized in the press – especially the British press – and portrayed as people of low intelligence, who are unfairly rewarded with weekly salaries that are higher than the wages that most people earn in a full year. In some cases, the criticism is justified. In others, though – with Rashford being the most recent and high-profile example – it isn’t. Is Rashford an exception to the rule, or is he a completely new breed of player?
The salaries that top players attract make it hard to view the players themselves as sympathetic figures. Regardless of what they do on or off the pitch, their contracts are generally bulletproof, and a player with a big club in a top division can expect to earn well over one hundred thousand dollars per week. The connection between football and wealth is so solid in the media’s eyes that it’s the whole basis of Online Slots UK like ‘Striker Goes Wild,’ which makes liberal use of Cristiano Ronaldo’s image as an invitation for players to come and try to earn a footballer’s riches. You won’t find an online slots game about a lower-league footballer struggling to make ends meet. We’re not suggesting that anyone should use the sometimes-crude stereotypes used in online slots games to form a judgment of how players are represented, but it’s an example of the reach of such stereotypes. We don’t expect thoughtful and generous social perspectives from footballers, and yet Rashford has that in abundance.
Marcus Rashford’s views
It’s true to say that Rashford’s own background has informed his views. Many soccer players grow up as working-class children, but Rashford’s family was particularly poor when he was growing up. As he made clear in a widely-circulated letter on social media, he never knew where his next meal from when he was growing up. His family never knew for sure how long the roof over their head would be there for. Even in comparison to the working-class children he grew up with, he was aware that his family was struggling, and it had a lasting impact on him. He swore that he would make a positive difference if he was lucky enough to earn big money when he grew up, and he has. Before he made his telling intervention in government policy, he’d funded thousands of school meals himself and raised more than twenty million dollars for charity in his spare time. Rashford is a shining example of everything that a modern footballer with a wide audience on social media could and should be, but he’s not alone.
Rashford’s voice might have been the most amplified in recent weeks, but he’s not the first English footballer of his generation to speak out about societal issues. Raheem Sterling, who plays opposite Rashford at club level for Manchester City but alongside him at international level with England, has long been recognized as a passionate campaigner against both racism and media bias. Watford captain Troy Deeney recently attracted mainstream press attention after he spoke out about gay representation in football, feeling that there’s ‘at least one’ gay player at every major club, but they’re too afraid of the abuse they’d receive to reveal themselves to the public.
Gary Lineker, who’s long-retired as a player but still a prominent figure in the British soccer media, has spoken up for a countless number of progressive causes on social media during the past twelve months. Rashford is not alone, and the more players who reveal themselves to be capable of considering ‘the big picture’ in terms of their place in society, the harder it becomes to justify the stereotypical image of a footballer we’ve all become used to.
Football players in trouble
There will always be exceptions, and bad apples sitting alongside the good ones. Sterling’s Manchester City teammate Kyle Walker has won himself few friends in recent months with his antics around women and partying. Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang found himself in hot water with his club a little over a year ago after being caught on camera inhaling balloons full of nitrous oxide at a party. Not everyone who has the platform to become a role model is willing or able to behave like a role model, but that doesn’t mean that the unhelpful footballer stereotype should be allowed to persist.
Marcus Rashford speaks for a whole generation of poor working-class children. His success in sport might have provided him with a platform to speak out, but his childhood experience is the same as thousands of other boys and men his age, both in and outside football. Ultimately, though, children look up to footballers. If footballers like Marcus Rashford can show disadvantaged children that caring about the world around you is the right thing to do, and that earning money isn’t as important as what you do with that money, they could become a catalyst for change in a way that those in the political class are incapable of becoming. The era of the ‘dumb footballer’ in the media might soon be over, and a kinder, more socially-conscious footballer stereotype might be about to take its place.