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Sunderland’s stance on League One wrap-up isn’t just out of touch - it’s unethical

When Sunderland players and staff are put on the firing line for the sake of cold, hard cash, how can anyone support a return to football in good conscience?

Sunderland v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Everyone not living under a rock for the last six months will be well aware of the indefinite suspension of Football across all divisions in the UK; painfully close to the season’s end before a global pandemic (perhaps mercifully for some) halted the stuttering performances that we had witnessed from Parkinson’s struggling Sunderland. Directors, owners and executives of many clubs are now scrambling to see just how much money they can claw back before the curtain closes on another payday.

Dubious appointment, and pal of the rather polarising Charlie Methven, Jim Rodwell, released a statement on Wednesday addressing the limbo football clubs find themselves in. You can find that here, but since there’s so much wrong with it you’ll read the majority of it in this article.

Where to begin? It’s all bloody awful, so we may as well start from the top.

From the moment the campaign was suspended in March, the EFL board has stated that any remaining fixtures should be played once it is safe and practical to do so, thus retaining the integrity of the competition.

There was a time when that looked like it would not be possible, but recent developments have ensured that the season can be completed within the initial timeframe set by the EFL.

I’m curious to know what “recent developments” have “ensured that the season can be completed within the initial time frame set by the EFL.” Have the EFL discovered a way to make a contact sport a non-contact sport? Are the players to be clad in hazmat suits? What are these developments that provide security against infection for everyone?

It is currently not safe to play football. Fact. If your perspective on safety is the idea that tracing and testing somehow amounts to adequate defence against a virus with no cure, which is still killing hundreds of Britons every day - and thousands of people worldwide - you are very likely a fool. Not just a little bit foolish, but an actual fool that doesn’t belong anywhere near the decision making process that could impact the lives of hundreds.

Britons Adjust To Eased Coronavirus Lockdown, Now In Ninth Week Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

The vivaciousness with which the FA and “big clubs” are pursuing the continuity of the Premier League is not a medical revelation of any kind. The fact that some of the largest clubs in the world and the institution itself stand to lose fortunes from the ongoing lockdown - which has not been lifted - does not ensure that it is safe to put 22 men on a pitch together in a highly competitive sport, with only an antibody test and a face mask standing between them and the worst case scenario.

Beyond the playing squad and their substitutions, many others are involved even in matches played behind closed doors: the officials; backroom staff; physios; security staff; admin; the hospitality staff that support them all - all of these people are put at risk in just one match between two teams.

There are 23 teams in League One, with over 200 matches to be played this season -excluding play off games. This means that each club puts dozens and dozens of staff at risk every time they play, and collectively the EFL would be subjecting hundreds of people to unnecessary risk - on multiple occasions - before it all plays out.

That could well translate to thousands of instances of potential transmission of Covid-19 simply to finish the season of one league amongst many.


If Jim Rodwell and Co. feel they’ve come up with a way to make that in any way safe for those hundreds of people at risk they need to call Matt Hancock and offer a helping hand. If I were a player facing that risk I’d simply refuse, and there wouldn’t be an ounce of selfishness involved.

The notion that footballers are invulnerable because they’re athletes, or that they don’t hold the same relationships with vulnerable people that every other person does because they’re wealthy, or that they should take the risk because their job pays more than stocking shelves at Tesco, is ludicrous. Pure, unadulterated ignorance, and at dangerous levels no less.

Several League One clubs have taken the stance that no further games should be played, and that a currently undetermined formula should be applied to finalise the league table.

SAFC strongly disagree with this view and remain committed to completing the season the right way.

We believe that any league placings should be determined by what happens on the pitch, not in a meeting room and most certainly not in a courtroom.

So what is the right way? I think Jim should change the wording of this to something more appropriate, something that isn’t synonymous with “just”, “fair”, “equitable”, “righteous”, “virtuous”. Something that better reflects the true reasons behind this stance taken by the club.

Coronavirus Advice Boards Under Lockdown In Birmingham photo by Mike Kemp/In PIctures via Getty Images

To me, doing something the right way means doing it for the right reasons and in a manner that everyone can agree on. Ending the season prematurely because of a deadly pandemic is not conventional, this is true, but it does call upon basic levels of common sense to adapt to dangerous circumstances in a manner that prioritises human life. That is right.

As an aside on the courtroom comment. I wonder how many of those courtrooms could be visited by club officials across the sport in the coming months and years, as players and staff who were cajoled and bullied by clubs and fans to provide a distraction to a bored public (and wiggle room in the bank accounts of those not actually risking themselves) come to realise that their Human right to safety was potentially violated?

Heaven forbid any of these people actually contract and transmit this virus to someone that succumbs to it. If that occurred, would the clubs of the EFL that seem to be almost daring such an outcome by pursuing this course of action and regurgitating this ill-fated narrative be willing to admit that they were then complicit?

Would the EFL hand out bereavement compensation to anyone that just so happens to contract the virus around the same time they’re being pressed into working in unsafe environments? I imagine there would be a great deal of responsibility avoidance from the powers that be.

Soccer - International Friendly - Italy v England - Juventus Stadium Getty

As a club, we entered the league to determine the best team over 46 games, not 37. That is the premise with which season cards, player contracts and partnerships are agreed.

It is unfortunate that supporters are extremely unlikely to be able to attend our remaining fixtures, but the streaming infrastructure in place at all EFL clubs ensures that we are in a position to fulfil any obligations, both moral and contractual, to our stakeholders.

Like all League One clubs, we therefore have a duty to do so.

Firstly, there being 46 games in a League One season is not the premise that player contracts are agreed upon. Season cards? No - they don’t promise you 46 games. What’s more, there won’t even be 46 games during a regular 2019/20 League One season, as Bury were removed from the EFL after becoming insolvent.

Players sign contracts based on length of time at the club. Season cards promise home games and a sense of familiarity in your surroundings. You’d hope our CEO knows that.

It makes a little more sense when it boils down to advertising partners - also known as “revenue”, “dosh” or “cash monies” - because sponsorship deals run the course of a season. Any time the players aren’t out there playing, thereby advertising the sponsors, the sponsors aren’t happy. You can’t have that.

Moral and contractual obligations to stakeholders. I’m glad Jim brought up morality:

Fulfilling our remaining fixtures will come at considerable cost, but it sets a deeply concerning precedent for professional football clubs to decide against completing competitions they have entered because they don’t feel like doing so.

Quite a statement. It could indeed come at tragic human cost. Beyond that, particularly that last part: “...because they don’t feel like doing so.”

This kind of narrative not only shows a gross lack of understanding of current events and medical science, but also a shocking lack of empathy with and consideration for the players and staff that are forced to perform for the masses whilst taking on a level of risk that can only be described as unnecessary, and therefore unethical.

Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Evidently, there are pockets of resistance to measures born of simple logic. Twitter is no doubt awash with poor takes and tin hats, and a mob that, criminally ignorant of all but their immediate surroundings, demands everyone ignores that pesky voice at the back of their head that many more of us have come to know as “rational fear”. It’s what happens when people around you start falling and the country grinds to a halt as citizen after citizen dies choking for breath. Fear is an important survival tool, highly developed in most known forms of life to be used in situations just like this one.

Neither fixtures being suspended for public health reasons or matches being played behind closed doors are novel scenarios, but both have happened in the past without clubs opting against fulfilling fixtures and altering competition rules.

“Novel” is the key word here. You’ll find it prefixing “coronavirus” in many medical papers. It’s used to describe something new and unseen; something for which there is no precedent; an event with no previous framework or guide to work from. I’m sure we’re all wondering: what is to be gained from treating something novel as if it’s familiar? What could possibly go wrong when treating novel things with the framework of entirely different events? Nothing, surely. Sound logic? I’m Ron Burgundy?

The framework for next season is yet to be determined and all clubs will be in a position to contribute to what is put in place, but this season’s rules and regulations are set in stone and all clubs agreed to them before a ball was kicked.

...and before the novel coronavirus pandemic shut half the world down. Minor caveat there.

We are determined to ensure players, staff and supporters are afforded the opportunity to see the hard work, sacrifice and loyalty of the past nine months rewarded.

But seemingly not equally determined to ensure players and staff are afforded safety in the workplace - something that currently no-one outside the vacuum room of a virology lab is able to offer ‘cos of that novel coronavirus thing that’s killing people.

The EFL is a professional league and it now needs to demonstrate the professionalism and obligation that comes with its historic status.

“Obligation.” What Jim seems to be getting at here is that the EFL owes every club a satisfactory end to the season on their own terms. On the face of things - and in less extraordinary times - this isn’t entirely untrue. Trouble is there is an obfuscating complexity about a global pandemic from which there is no protection.

Sport Coronavirus - Wednesday 18th March Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images

The ever-growing monster of cynicism inside me fears that a simpler and more sinister truth of the matter has more to do with the desires of the owners of Sunderland AFC - and those of certain other clubs - who, by some accounts, can neither afford another season in League One, nor can they afford the damage to their profit from either their ongoing ownership nor any sale of the club in the immediate future, if it isn’t in the Championship. Could this have some kind of influence on the decision process? We may never know.

In my mind, it does make a man wonder: if Sunderland AFC were top of the table when the alternative systems for deciding the outcome of the season were floated, would we be having this conversation? Would Sunderland AFC - if they were guaranteed promotion - gladly stand up and blow the trumpets for social responsibility and the individual rights of staff to work safely, by adhering to effective alternatives that prioritise life over profit? As it stands we finish a hairs-breadth out of the play-off spots if said hypothetical systems were followed. But I’m sure that’s got nothing to do with it.

I wanted promotion this season as much as anyone. You know what I’d settle for though? Just to be able to watch my team play football again, at any level. But not like this. Not at the potential expense of those that actually take that risk, purely for our entertainment and to line the pockets of their bosses. I couldn’t enjoy a game knowing that, and I wouldn’t watch it. If you are one of those people that are commanded to go through with such a foolhardy endeavour - don’t. Not for me, not for your boss and not for any baying mob that just wants an hour and a half of entertainment. Your family comes first.

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