Stuart Waiton: How weak politicians turned sport into a political football

ONE of the many curiosities about the David Goodwillie affair has been the talk of Goodwillie and, more generally, footballer players as “role models”.

The talk of footballers as role models is a relatively modern invention. The term role model itself developed out of the 1960s but was a relatively specialised idea used largely in sociology and psychology, especially in child psychology.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that footballers started to be discussed more generally as role models, a time when football itself was becoming something that politicians and public figures started to want to be associated with.

At a time when the connection between politicians and the public was becoming more distant, the mass passionate support experienced in football was something that political figures like Tony Blair were keen to exploit.

READ MORE: Stuart Waiton: It was only a matter of time before football fans rebelled against taking the knee

Being a football fan also allowed politicians, like Blair (Newcastle United) and the Conservative prime minister David Cameron (Aston Villa), to appear to be more down to earth, as men of the people, rather than as privately educated aloof toffs.

Indeed, there appears to be an inverse relationship between the declining sense of authority felt by public figures and the imagined power of young men playing football who have been transformed into role models.

For generations, young boys in particular have had posters of their favourite players on their walls. Less so today perhaps, but football magazines and football cards were also something that many boys got into.

Despite the adoration of football players, before the 1990s, there was little or no talk about players being role models. Politicians got on with the important things in life, like running the country and it was left to the most small minded and conservative critics to bemoan the good old days when footballers had short hair and decent moral values.

READ MORE: Stuart Waiton: Do not panic about racism in football

But as politics became smaller and less inspiring two things changed. Firstly, politics itself shifted, becoming less about macro matters, and big ideas and more about the little things in life in what became known as the politics of behaviour. As a result, there was an increasing preoccupation with the minutiae of life, with, as the name suggests, our behaviour.

At the same time, and partly as a result of this diminishing of the political imagination, footballers were elevated in the minds of the political class into these things “role models”.

On the ground, back in the real-world, working-class punters and their children continued to passionately support their teams and to worship their best players for what they did on the pitch rather than what they did in their bedrooms or with their copious amounts of money.

Unfortunately for them, our behaviour-obsessed politicians, lacking a sense of their own authority, increasingly looked in horror at the behaviour of fans and players alike, fearing the potential influence that players might have on the imagined sheep like working classes who by now had almost no relationship with politicians or their parties.

As politicians got smaller, both in standing and in their own imagination, the influence of people like football players was blown out of all proportion.

Moreover, the disconnect between the modern elites and the public has helped foster a sense of fear about the “lack of awareness” amongst the mob – which helps to explain the constant and never-ending desire to educate fans about issues like racism.

In a more balanced and mature society the idea that football players influence the moral values of fans would be seen as at best far-fetched. While the belief that David Goodwillie would somehow encourage boys to behave in an unacceptable way towards women, would be seen as bordering on insane.

Ultimately, this idea has developed and grown not because of anything to do with football players or with the outlook or behaviour of fans but because of the disconnected and contemptuous nature of our elites and of a political class who remain terrified by the potential passion and power of ordinary people.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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