Soccer Slaves? Employment Conditions in Professional Football in England and Wales (1945-1961)

Athletes' Working Conditions
By Matthew Taylor

Popular representations of the employment conditions of professional footballers in England before the 1970s are normally summarised by a collection of interchangeable phrases : ‘slaves’, ‘serfs’ ‘servants’ and ‘bonded men’. Commonly contrasted with the relative freedom of ‘normal’ industrial workers, and with football’s post-1960, and more particularly post-Bosman, eras, the ‘good old bad old days’ of the maximum wage and the retain-and-transfer have rarely been subjected to detailed scholarly analysis. Focusing on the four decades prior to the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961, this paper draws on the archives of the Football League, clubs, the football players’ union and the records of the Ministry of Labour to argue that the employment conditions of professional footballers were more complex, and the treatment of football employees more varied, than is normally recognised. By looking beyond the straightforward club-player relationship, and recognising that football’s employment and labour market was in fact the outcome of a range of interconnections between the employers’ association, the national federation, the employer, the trade union and the ‘dressing room’ workforce, it seeks to propose new understandings of how footballers were actually treated ‘on the ground’. At its most extreme, football employment could indeed be equated with ‘slavery’ and ‘feudalism’ ; but regulations which were restrictive on paper could be interpreted in ways which allowed greater freedoms and rewards in practice.

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