Why Can’t Footballers Have Opinions?

In Football on September 22, 2011 at 9:46 am

Another furore over Twitter. An investigation looms. A young professional footballer faces a hefty fine, or perhaps even worse, over expressing an opinion that breaks no laws. If this sounds like a bullet point of several stories that have run over the past few months, that probably because it is. Yet, ultimately what is it about footballers that should preclude them from expressing an opinion publicly? Why is it that they are subjected to a higher level of censorship than Joe Public?

The latest storm in an e-cup revolves around Nathan Ecclestone, a 20 year old player who has only made nine appearances for his club, Liverpool. Despite the fact he is far from high profile, a possible future star at best, he has 39,000 followers who all seem intent on hearing what he has to say on a daily basis. What pressure then to entertain. The life of the average 20 year old is far from interesting and there is a tedious mundanity about the grind of being a professional foorballer. It can’t all be mobile phones up arses, roasting drunk girls, crashing sportscars. For some it’s wake up, train hard, go home, wait to see if your name appears on the Saturday team sheet.

But of course you still have opinions, so why not share them? After all, this is probably the one good thing about the internet. While politicians and hysterical tabloids will tell you it’s nothing more than a delivery vehicle for child porn and terrorist activity, it is primarily used for the rapid exchange of information and opinions. It’s what we all use it for.

And footballers are no different. Yet whenever a footballer, or indeed any high profile sporting celebrity, chooses to express an honest opinion about their industry that might deviate from the one commonly held by the public, the uproar doesn’t go away until someone has been forced into action or an apology. Whether it’s Paul Dalglish expressing his distaste at Howard Webb being made an MBE, Glenn Johnson pointing out Paul Merson might have had a bit of a gambling problem, Wojciech Szczesny suggesting that maybe Man Utd get the rub of the green in big decisions, it’s not long before it’s being investigated.

Mind you, at least those all revolve around their sport. Now it seems that footballers can’t even have opinions about politics or world events. Forget Carlton Cole casting aspersions on the legitimacy of the average Ghanian’s right to be in this country, Ecclestone’s offending tweet about September 11th reads “I ain’t going to say attack don’t let the media make u believe that was terrorist that did it. #OTIS”, the acronym at the end standing for “only The Illuminati succeed.”

Nathan is a 20 year old footballer, not a political analyst, not an eminent historian, not a seasoned journalist. He, like many others, clearly believes there’s more to the September 11th attacks than meets the eye. Many won’t have done much more than light reading on the matter as they don’t fall into any of those alternative careers. Regardless, the internet is awash with conspiracy theories that range from the vaguely plausible to the ridiculous. Flag-sucking patriots may find some of them offensive, families of the victims might not enjoy such speculation about the factors behind the deaths of their loved ones but freedom of speech is protected in the west, prized above almost all other freedoms.

Why then have Liverpool had to release a statement reading “The club takes this matter extremely seriously and senior club officials have informed Nathan Eccleston that we are undertaking an investigation into the circumstances surrounding these postings and will decide on an appropriate course of action.” What exactly does the investigation entail? Has it now become some form of professional misconduct to state your views about anything that may be construed as vaguely controversial outside of your work place? Evidently it has and most clubs are now looking at imposing a Twitter ban, a ridiculous measure.

Of course, here’s the real reason why this matter always manages to grab people’s attention – the petty jealousy of the mindless fools that make up the followers. They sit there, like some form of cyber-Stasi, waiting for someone to say something they disagree with. Then, en mass, they decry it as being wrong, as being unprofessional, as being offensive. The next move is to find who they can complain to, where to send that e-mail, which newspaper to contact. It all happens so quickly that before the footballer can delete the tweet in question, the damage is already done.

The thought process of the average moron that engages in this activity is quite transparent. Footballers earn exorbitant wages for kicking a ball. My job requires more hard work than theirs and I get less money. This is not fair. In that case they should be held up to a much higher standard of behaviour… Plus they’re role models to children, so yeah, if they step out of line in any way, fuck them. Take their money away, take their sponsors away, force them into humiliating public contrition. This slightly redresses the balance because I’m free to do all of the things I demand they don’t.

These people try and edge the spheres of their non-compatible, irrelevant arguments towards the discussion surrounding the endless Twitter controversies. The only discussion that is worth having is whether or not you believe profession dictates your right to freedom of speech. What you earn, what you do, who you are just shouldn’t come into it and all the bleating sermonising about what’s the “right” thing to do does not alter that.

While I have no doubt that Ecclestone had no idea his tweet would cause such consequences it at least might finally lead to something comprehensive being decided on the issue. Clearly, if clubs and the FA start to impede the rights of players to express political views it won’t take long for a legal team to overturn it. And when that happens the floodgates will finally be open. This oppressed profession will be free at last, free to spout their stupefyingly ill-informed views, free to speculate wildly about what it all means and free to moan about the way a game panned out the same as any fan can. Would that really be so terrible?

I have no idea how it got to the stage where clubs can take it upon themselves to investigate the political sympathies of players. If you do think this is correct picture this scenario – next time you’re shuffling papers in your office nine to five you get a tap on the shoulder. It’s your boss. They haul you into the free room, the plastic furniture laminated with the tears of the dismissed. Someone has sent them a screenshot of you saying something negative about Israel and how they should get out of Palestine. What have you got to say for yourself?


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