Joan Smith: A gilded cage, but it's still slavery


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I was going to buy a man this week, but then I saw the prices. I mean, what happened to the recession? Cashing in my Isa wouldn't get me anywhere near the going rate for the admittedly rather dishy Fernando Torres, while all I'd get for £35m is a callow 22-year-old Geordie. Personally, if I were able to come up with that kind of silly money, I'd want someone a little more cosmopolitan than the former (as of Tuesday) Newcastle United striker Andy Carroll.

Sexist? Bear with me for a moment. Two days ago, as the transfer deadline loomed, Liverpool sold Torres to Chelsea and bought Carroll. Chelsea's billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, paid £50m for the Spanish striker, despite unveiling an £80m loss at the club in the most recent financial year. And Liverpool promptly invested almost three-quarters of the fee in the inexperienced Newcastle striker, who has played only half a season of top-class football.

Carroll now rejoices in the title of most expensive English footballer in history, which is fine if you're happy with the idea of human beings being traded like horses. I find everything about this annual meat market distasteful, from the eye-watering sums involved to the suspension of the usual rules that relate to the workplace. Carroll certainly doesn't seem to have enjoyed his experience of being traded between millionaire club bosses, claiming yesterday that he'd been forced out of Newcastle United against his will.

I know that footballers have more say about which club they play for since the landmark Bosman judgment at the European Court of Justice in 1995. It is also true that top players' agents are able to negotiate amazing deals with Premier League clubs, as Manchester United's Wayne Rooney proved a few months ago when he muttered the magic words "Manchester City". Carroll is apparently going to be paid £175,000 a week at Liverpool and, if that's slavery, I have to admit it's a peculiarly gilded sort.

Even so, it seems crazy to me that the salaries of some leading Premiership players now exceed the annual health budget of an impoverished African country. It encourages footballers to aspire to an absurd lifestyle which would be funny if it didn't sometimes tip over into something darker: Carroll was cautioned for assault in 2008 and pleaded guilty to common assault after an incident in a nightclub in 2009. Wigan Athletic sacked striker Marlon King when he was jailed for sexual assault, but Coventry City snapped him up on his release last autumn, despite the fact he is on the sex offenders' register.

The game treats top players like children, providing the wherewithal for expensive toys – fast cars, endless parties, glamorous Wags – while shifting them round the country like cattle. Only two months ago, Newcastle United officials were assuring fans that there were no plans to sell Carroll, but this week the player found himself being whisked in the owner's helicopter to a new club.

If women athletes were treated like this, there would be an outcry. And while sexist attitudes are rife in football, I can't help wondering if it has something to do with the fact that men are infantilised and rewarded for behaving like "lads". The annual "sale" of human beings speaks volumes about a sport where no one, except the men with money, is expected to behave like a grown-up.

Films pander to the lowest common denominator

I don't want to see anything in 3D or by Disney, The King's Speech is monarchist tosh and Biutiful has had so-so reviews. I can't remember when I last went to a movie, even though I scour the new releases every week. There's almost nothing I want to see, which is hardly surprising when you look at the uninspiring list of Oscar nominations this year.

Last year produced some stand-out films, including Shutter Island, Agora and the quietly stunning Certified Copy. But niche marketing – an apparently endless stream of sequels, teen movies and special effects – keeps good films out of local cinemas. I loved The Hurt Locker, which won six Oscars including one for Kathryn Bigelow as best director, but it vanished so quickly from general release that I was forced to watch it on DVD. I still love movies, but I'm not sure the industry cares about me.

Wined and dined by the WikiLeaks boss

Several friends have recently signed up to online dating sites, undeterred by the alarming revelation that the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, used one a few years ago. To be fair, I'm not totally convinced that the post is genuine: would he really describe himself as "87 per cent slut" and claim to like women "from countries that have sustained political turmoil"? Rules me out, thank God, unless living under the heel of the despised Lib-Con Coalition counts as turmoil.

Any woman responding to "Harry Harrison", as Assange's online alter ego called himself, might have been disappointed if she expected to be wined and dined in the usual manner. A brilliant profile of the super-hacker on an Australian website ( records that Assange was frustrated "that the human body has to be fed several times a day" and experimented with eating once every two days.

He also insisted on sleeping in a room with a red lightbulb, the idea being that he would see the "gentle light of the campfire" on waking, just like our ancestors. Crazy guy, huh? Though I think that red-light-in-the-bedroom thing could be misconstrued.

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