Union benefits and a nuisance valued

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The Independent Online
It Is a further indication of the widening gap between the haves and have-nots of British sport that whereas Newcastle United had to pay pounds 15m for a striker, the Football League are about to receive over 1,000 strikers for nothing. Like the joke, it is no laughing matter.

The Professional Footballers' Association are today expected to confirm the balloting of their members on the issue of taking strike action this season unless they get what they consider to be their fair share of the pounds 25m in television rights the League, now sponsored by the Nationwide Building Society, are to receive from BSkyB.

If the League do not cough up the 10 per cent the PFA are accustomed to receiving, players will undoubtedly agree to withdraw their services for televised matches. The League, who have unilaterally altered the 10 per cent agreement to a sinister "discretionary payment", are ready to seek a High Court injunction to prevent a strike on the grounds that the dispute does not affect the players' terms of employment. And they might have a nice legal point.

This could be the first time in the history of industrial strife that workers go on strike for more money for their union, not for themselves. As a long-time trade-unionist myself I am forever poised to man the barricades for a just cause but the entreaty "we'll take all the proceeds, comrades, and spend it wisely" might cause me to hesitate.

Not for one moment do I suggest that the PFA would spend it less than wisely. Their chairman, Pat Nevin, explains the players' case with impassioned clarity on the back page of this issue, and certainly no organisation in the game, with the possible exception of the Football Trust, distributes largesse to more deserving areas. There are, however, other factors that make it difficult to equate this with other fracas between employers and employed.

Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the PFA, has accused the clubs of a "Victorian" attitude. Since the game is rooted in Victorian times this would not be surprising. But a subtle change has overtaken football that makes the allusion suspect. There weren't many mill owners who had less money than the cotton workers' union.

If reports are right, the PFA have assets of pounds 8m and are probably more solvent than any of the clubs their members play for. Considering that so many clubs in the League are struggling for existence, their anxiety to hang on to as much as possible of the Sky money is understandable, if not justifiable.

On Thursday, Taylor identified a shadowy player in the game. The Premier League, he accused, are secretly egging on their lower league cousins because if the PFA are successful in taking a pounds 2.5m cut from them it will strengthen the players' case when the Premier's pounds 670m Sky deal begins next year. Under the existing percentages this would net the PFA pounds 35m. They could start their own football team.

Apart from any other consideration, our football leaders may think that, however benevolent the players' motives are, it is not in the clubs' interest to contribute so handsomely to building up the strength of a body that can only be an internal nuisance.

In Taylor, the players have the most articulate voice echoing around football. Had circumstances been more favourable a few years ago, he could be the game's supremo. He might yet become so. In the meantime, he's the chief irritant. At the launch of the Rothmans Football Yearbook, he accused the game's rulers of acting like "Ali Baba and the 40 thieves scrabbling around for money".

He continued: "Their attitude is 'screw the union'. They want to get rid of us. The game is not just about pounds 15m signings. It is about those at the bottom, who will be abandoned if the PFA's money is simply cut off. The base of the pyramid is eroding; unless we are prepared to strengthen it there is no use throwing money at the apex."

This is powerful stuff and you almost feel them wincing at the top, especially as they are being asked to push more finance at his organisation. It is like being asked to pay a man to give you a public bollocking on a regular basis.

There is, of course, much more to it than a struggle for the steering wheel. As a soaring amount of television money cascades into sport, so the method of sharing it out is being increasingly examined by the interested parties. The International Olympic Committee ought to pray that no one thinks of forming an Olympic Competitors' Union. If any group of sportspeople have a case for complaint, it is those who made the necessary sacrifices to get to Atlanta and came away with nothing but a warm glow.

Top athletes can turn the medals and the glory into something more tangible, but the vast majority of those who took part are mocked by the profits others made from the Games. The American television channel NBC made untold millions from an unashamedly chauvinistic coverage that denied every purity for which the Olympics are supposed to stand. The IOC are too busy counting their share to notice. Those whose efforts made the Game are sent home with nothing but an exhortation to make their own way to Sydney in four years time and get exploited all over again.

The full extent of the damage that Sky's millions have done to rugby still defies calculation. The money has succeeded in driving a wedge through a Five Nations championship which had stood like a rock. If union had done the decent thing and turned professional 20 years ago, before the satellites came, the game would have been in better shape to withstand the waves of greed. Now, the devastation continues to spread like a mushroom cloud and the oncoming season seems totally shapeless.

A multitude of millionaires have helped to distort the picture by causing a bewildering number of players to move clubs, but it is anticipation of television money to come which has helped to open their wallets. There is a newly formed players' association but they have yet to find their feet, let alone flex their muscles. No doubt they will be guided in the fortunes of their footballing brethren.

At least football's battle is easy to follow. While the various factions of rugby thresh about wildly, football's civil war is being fought out in the open by organised armies. We know, or think we know, who is on whose side and who is trying to do what to the others. With the complication of pay-per-view yet to come, we can but hope that whatever result is achieved will be a lasting one and act as a precedent for other sports. Alas, it could be another case for the courts, where we can confidently predict that the Lawyers X1 will be the winners. But if they settle the matter once and for all, any cost will be worth it.

Linford Christie claims that the nation will never see his like again. Government neglect has ruined our sporting future. He says: "I don't think we have any chance - there will never be another Linford Christie".

Isn't that typical of the man? Despite his several disappointments at the Olympics, he still finds time to cheer us up.