Why sharks should not own sport
22 April 2010In his latest column for the New Statesman, John Pilger describes how the rich and powerful have taken over and distorted the people's pleasure - sport, from Tiger Woods Inc to the World Cup, soon to begin in South Africa. Pilger looks at the way Fifa and multiple sponsors have invaded South Africa and ordinary South Africans have been pushed aside in the cause of profiteering.
As Tiger Woods returns to golf, not all his affairs are salacious headlines. In Dubai, the Tiger Woods Golf Course in Dubai is costing $100million to build. Dubai relies on cheap third world labour, as do certain consumer brands that have helped make Woods a billionaire. Nike workers in Thailand wrote to Woods, expressing their “utmost respect for your skill and perseverance as an athlete” but pointing out that they would need to work 72,000 years “to receive what you will earn from [your Nike] contract”.
The American sports writer, Dave Zirin, is one of the few to break media silence on the corporate distortion and corruption of sport. His forthcoming book Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner) blows a long whistle on what money power has done to the people’s pleasure, its heroes like Woods and the communities it once served. He describes the impact of the Texan Tom Hicks’s half-ownership of Liverpool Football Club, which followed another rich and bored American Malcolm Glazer’s “leveraged takeover” of Manchester United in 2005. As a result, England’s most successful club (with Liverpool) is now 716.5 million pounds in debt.
How long has this been going on? In 1983, you could buy a ticket to a first division game for 75 pence. Today, the average at Old Trafford is around 34 pounds. Watch the latest crop of parents on morose queues to buy overpriced club strips and insignia, also made with cheap and often sweated labour, with the brand of a failed multinational emblazoned on it. Profiteering is now an incandescent presence across top-class sport. Sven-Goran Eriksson will trouser up to two million pounds for just three months’ work in Ivory Coast, where half the population has barely enough to survive. Australia’s finest, most boorish cricketers are collecting their bundles for a few months’ cavorting in the Indian franchises. The attitude is entitlement, the kind that less talented “celebrities” flaunt. It was in no way remarkable that in 2007-8 a number of the heirs to Don Bradman’s Invincibles achieved what was once nigh on impossible; they were disliked in their own country. Those high fives and air-punching fists have become salutes not to “everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards” (Bill Shankly), but to the voracious sponsor and the forensic camera.
Take for example FIFA, which has effectively taken charge of South Africa for the World Cup. Along with the International Olympic Committee, FIFA is sport’s Wall Street and Pentagon combined. They have this power because host politicians believe the “international prestige” of their visitation will bring economic and promotional benefits, especially to themselves. I was reminded of this watching a documentary by the South African director Craig Tanner, Fahrenheit 2010. His film is not opposed to the World Cup, but reveals how ordinary South Africans, whose game is football, have been shoved aside, dispossessed and further impoverished so that a giant TV façade can be erected in their country.
A new stadium near Nelspruit will host four World Cup matches over 10 days. Jimmy Mohlala, speaker of the local municipality, was gunned down in his home in January last year after whistle-blowing “irregularities” in the tenders. An entire school, which was in the way, has been removed into prefabricated, sweltering steel boxes on a desolate site with a road running through it. “When the World Cup is over,” said the writer Ashwin Desai, “it will become obvious that these stadiums are going to be empty shells, that our money has been used for what is really a pyramid scheme”.
A community of 20,000 people, the Joe Slovo Informal Settlement, is threatened with eviction from where they live near the main motorway between Cape Town and the city’s airport. They are deemed an “eyesore”. Street vendors will be arrested if they fail to comply with FIFA rules about trade and advertising and mention the words “World Cup”, even “2010”. FIFA will earn about two and quarter billion pounds from the TV rights, exceeding its income from the last two World Cups combined.
Incredibly, South Africa will get none of this. And this is country with up to 40 per cent unemployment, a male life expectancy of 49 and thousands of malnourished children. This truth about the “rainbow nation” is not what fans all over the world will see on their TV screens, although they may glimpse an unreported feature of modern South Africa, which is a vibrant, rolling resistance that has linked the World Cup to an economic apartheid that remains as divisive as ever. Indeed, another kind of World Cup for effective popular protest has long been won in the streets of South Africa’s townships.
In his chapter on Liverpool FC, Dave Zirin describes a similar resistance that also offers inspiration to those struggling to reclaim sport from the sharks. A fans’ organization, Share Liverpool FC, is aiming for 100,000 shareholders to buy back the club from Tom Hicks and his co-owner, George Gillett. Liverpool fans have also formed the Liverpool Supporters Union (LSU), which has had thousands in the streets calling for a boycott of the Bank of Scotland if it gives Hicks and Gillett any more credit. Remember how the boycott of Murdoch press succeeded in Liverpool following the Sun’s lies over the Hillsborough tragedy. “If we stand together and speak with one voice, regardless of language or accent,” says the LSU, “we can make a genuine difference to our football club, the city of Liverpool and indeed the wider footballing world.” On 17 April, Hicks and Gillett announced they were selling the club. Manchester United fans are mounting a similar, principled resistance in defence of the sport they love and which they believe rightly is theirs. We should support them.