Leading Article: Don't begrudge the gold rush

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The Independent Culture
IN THE old days it was shows of hands in car parks. The modern pay disputes, which have dominated the headlines this week, involve young sports stars and six-and-seven-figure sums of money. Dion Dublin, 29, finally went to Aston Villa for pounds 5.75m, after 10 days of feverish bidding and counter-bidding. Meanwhile, Nelson Mandela stepped into the argument over pay between the West Indies cricketers and their board, which threatens the symbolic tour of South Africa next week, where cricket has for too long been a white game.

The balance of power in sport is shifting from owners to players, and all for the good. Dublin's transfer fee may be part of a passing order, because the money will go not to him, but to his old club Coventry. He will subsist on a signing-on fee of hundreds of thousands of pounds, and a weekly fee most people would be happy to earn in a year. But this is nothing compared to the pounds 3m a year earned by "Neon" Deion Sanders in American football and baseball. In the US, sports stars have put Marx's teaching into practice by appropriating the full value of their labour.

The world league of high-earning sportspeople is notable for the absence of soccer players and cricketers. Led by Michael Jordan, the pounds 21m-a-year basketball star, it is loaded with boxers and racing-car drivers, with the odd tennis player and golfer thrown in. But this is changing, especially as the consequences of the European Court's recent ruling work through the world of football. Soccer players can no longer be bought and sold like pampered Nubians, and will be liberated to earn their value in the marketplace.

In the old days, players were wage slaves, paid the rate for the job decided by paternalistic club chairmen. Tommy Docherty is said to have questioned his wages in the 1950s, asking why he got pounds 10 a week in the winter and pounds 6 a week in the summer off season, while Tom Finney was on pounds 12 and pounds 8. "Because Finney's a better player than you," came the answer. "Not in the summer, he ain't," Docherty growled back. In those days, players were traded like club property. Now, transfer fees will become a thing of the past.

It is right that the players who draw crowds should reap the rewards - even if all it does is give them the chance to walk away from the money, like Brian Laudrup, currently the highest-paid footballer in the world, who is giving away the chance to earn pounds 10m by returning to his native Copenhagen.