Simon Lansley: Has football lost what it once stood for?
A new campaign was launched this week, 'Action for Happiness'. It will probably pass most football supporters by... frankly why it should it bother them? They are concerned with a) how their team fares at the weekend; b) getting through another week at work; and c) how their team fares at the weekend.
Its central premise is altruism; the logic which dictates that to improve society, everyone must agree that we want to improve it and all act accordingly. Why is he banging on about this, you ask? Well, Karl Marx once said religion is the opiate of the masses. He was wrong of course; football is.
What's more, it's doing its best to act as a mirror to the ills of our society. I don't just mean Wayne Rooney shouting expletives into the camera, or even one or two miscreants setting a bad example off the field. I mean in its very essence. How has a game based on healthy competition and modest reward for sporting achievement come to cloud the daily judgement and reason of so many grown men and women? (Largely just the men, let's be honest).
It's overtaken some very necessary priorities in our lives and in our communities, and as a result stands as a poignant manifestation of all that is going awry in modern society, which the aforementioned campaign is trying to highlight.
"We are suffering from a philosophy of excessive individualism, in which many people are encouraged to believe that their proper goal in life is to do the best they can for themselves rather than contribute to the lives of others." So says Lord Richard Layard, Emeritus Professor of Economics at LSE, speaking in his lecture 'Is a happier society possible?' at York University last month.
He may as well have been talking about football, let's be honest. If the comparison seems a little trite, then let me tell you about my real concern. The current generation of middle-aged football fans has witnessed 'elite' clubs lose touch with where they came from over the last 30 years. That's not to say many do not run excellent and worthwhile community projects; but still those projects are a by-product of the one true objective: to make as much money as possible.
But here's the real sickener. The next generation don't even know what football clubs once stood for. Community, local pride, participation, honest endeavour, a sense of achievement; not profit and loss. Football at its highest level has become disassociated from the foundations upon which it was built.
We simply can't expect kids today to think and behave in a proactive, responsible fashion if we have moved the goalposts so fundamentally. Thank goodness for people like the Football Foundation who have channelled nearly £1billion of Premier League, FA and Government money into facilities for grassroots football over the last decade (there's probably some near you) and yet, hand on heart, what do you know about them?
That's the media's fault, you say. Is it? Most media companies will give the people what they want these days; witness the rise of celebrity or reality TV. So perhaps it's time ordinary consumer started to question what they are consuming. It's a burning question for our society and football's survival of the richest is emblematic.
Lord Layard cites Aristotle's theory of good behaviour in his lecture. "Good behaviour has to be learned as a habit and then the virtuous person will experience pleasure when he behaves virtuously."
I am a long way from virtuous, believe you me, but I have learned over the last three years what Aristotle, Marx and even Lord Layard were getting at. Running my lad's football team has come to give me more of a buzz than watching my particular football club.
My weekend used to depend on a win. For nearly 25 years I never thought anything would ever come close (even the wife accepts our wedding day played second fiddle to winning the play-offs at the Millennium Stadium). Ultimately we can carry on acting like individuals and watching the game we once loved disappear over the horizon, or we can get involved and put our communities first.
If you become a grassroots football coach, the rewards won't appear tomorrow, or even next week, but within a couple of months you will start to feel a sense of fulfilment that, these days, money simply can't buy.
The last word goes to Lord Layard. "The time is ready for radical cultural change, away from a culture of selfishness and materialism, which fails to satisfy, towards one where we care more for each other's happiness - and make that the guiding raison d'etre for our lives.
“We want it to be a mass movement of people pursuing a better way of life. Many people have the right ideas already, but can get strength from joining with others. Its greatest strength will be through groups forming to improve their lives and the lives of others.”
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