We still can’t have an intelligent conversation about player wages

“It’s not about the money at all,” Raheem Sterling said earlier this month. If true, this would make elite-level soccer pretty much the only sector of human activity not to revolve around money since the invention of bartering cattle and grain around 9,000 BC.

It is always about the money. Maybe not directly and entirely for Sterling, who already earns in a week a sum similar to the average annual U.K. household’s income. But for his agent, or his club, or the market value of his peers, or for the reason that at a certain point, for the super-rich, money equates to perceptions of respect rather than being just a mechanism for people to buy stuff. It’s a ranking tool, which is why we have rich lists, Mammon’s version of Opta heat maps.

Sterling gave an ill-advised interview to the BBC in which he discussed turning down Liverpool’s 100,000 pound-a-week contract offer ($150,000), using bankrupt old lines like “I just want to solely focus on my football right now” and saying he wants to win trophies.

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It lit a firestorm of criticism, with Sterling dubbed greedy, naive and a player with an over-inflated sense of self-worth. There seems little sympathy for the notion that he might have the right to decide his future on his own timescale, not only his employer’s; or that, like anyone else, he might want to do what’s best for himself, and that’s a personal choice.

We are supposed to feel it is immoral for a “20-year-old boy,” as manager Brendan Rodgers described him, to negotiate, to delay, to spurn, when presented with such an amount. But if 100,000 pounds is obscene, would it be any less offensive if he was 23, or 25? Isn’t it an absurdly high paycheck whether he’s smart and mature or idiotic and arrogant?

His agent is taking flak, but isn’t it a representative’s job to get his client the best possible deal, regardless of age? And it’s not like Sterling needs to be in a hurry — he has two years left on his current contract — or he’d lack appealing suitors if Liverpool sold him.

Sterling is told he’s not good enough to earn more than whatever Liverpool think he’s worth, though he is one of the most promising players in Europe and has already played in the World Cup for England, yet the offer would only see him earn around a third of the sums collected by the very best on the planet.

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The disappointed-school-principal tone of Rodgers’ (left, above) public comments shrewdly plays into our instinctive desire to side with clubs on this issue, when players get painted as money-grubbing, agent-manipulated, disloyal to the team that made them great. Never mind that these clubs raise ticket prices above inflation and sell or drop players whenever it suits them. Never mind that it is clubs who choose to pay players high salaries, clubs who have fostered the inflation that happens with each new television deal. Never mind that mighty, historic, prestigious Liverpool is not going to be in the Champions League next season and have not won the English league title since four years before Sterling was born.

While rationally we understand that soccer players are famous entertainers little different to pop stars or actors, in our hearts we have a hard time accepting it. Taylor Swift charges an average face value price of $90 for world tour tickets, according to Forbes, and her latest could gross over $200 million. But there’s no great uprising against her, no plans for a mass boycott of her music by teenaged girls and their penniless parents, no complaints that she’s so rich and well-known that her fans can’t relate to her any more.

Sterling, though, is somehow different – subject to other standards, a victim of a vague nostalgia for the days when English soccer had a maximum wage of 20 pounds per week, even though hardly anyone remembers that era, which ended in 1961.

Players get no sympathy because we want to believe they’d turn out for our clubs for nothing, like we would, right? Hell, we’d even pay to put on the jersey, we love our teams so much. The Major League Soccer Players Union publishes the salaries of all its members, yet this hasn’t really affected public opinion about the low salaries of many in the league. It’s created intrigue, not revolution. Sure, we have some sympathy when we click open the list and see a guy on $45,000 a year; but even if the figure was $4,500, we’d still be thinking “you lucky bastard, doing this for work.”

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While Sterling’s fluffy soundbites have brought him ridicule, we’re not in a climate where soccer players can tell the truth about money. They always have to be motivated by silverware, a fresh challenge. This helps keep up the fiction that glory is as important as cash, though only a couple of clubs every year will win trophies while every single player knows that around the age of 35, they will be unemployed, their earnings potential literally decimated overnight.

And we’re complicit in this romantic narrative which makes the players not so much real people as actors on a stage, delivering lines we want to hear, because we don’t want to think of professional sport as a series of calculated economic transactions designed to strategically develop the business. We want to talk about clean sheets, not balance sheets. We want to imagine Sterling scoring a goal for us, not for his win bonus.

So we’re conflicted on the issue: slamming Sterling’s greed but salivating at his talent. We don’t want to develop the theme, to equate an extra 50,000 pounds a week for Sterling to another pound on the price of an admission ticket or a Sky Sports subscription.

When the subject is broached we shake our heads disapprovingly without making any concerted effort to change the system or offering any credible alternatives. We’re like self-righteous suburbanites who buy a Prius rather than ditching a car altogether and taking public transport. Who dutifully recycle trash while turning on the air conditioning instead of opening a window or cranking on a ceiling fan.

Salaries fascinate us, repel us, and they’re a subject we love to talk about – and to ignore when it suits us. We engage with the debate only at the PR and personality level with shallow outrage — Sterling’s an idiot for doing that interview, Ashley Cole was a fool for writing in his autobiography that he “nearly swerved off the road” when Arsenal only offered him 55,000 pounds a week — rather than addressing the sport’s economics in any meaningful way and instigating change.