Analogy: Gentlemen and Players

 Alistair Gentry 
June 2016

Students from Caius College, Cambridge and Oxford play football while dressed as Victorian gentlemen / 1946

I don’t know much about sport, but I know this: in the colonial era, there were two types of teams who competed against each other for the same prizes on what was the very definition of an uneven playing field. The players were professionals, or would-be professionals, who dedicated themselves completely to the game. Their gentleman opponents obviously also liked to win, but didn’t have to because they could afford to play the game for its own sake. Off the pitch most of them had already won the game of life simply by being born into the right place, time, and social class. After his already superlative start an imperial era gentleman continued to play life with the rules applied far more leniently and the rewards handed out far more generously to him than to anybody else.

In 19th-century association football, most players had day jobs despite being paid for playing because the pay for playing was too low on its own. Then the headmasters of Victorian public schools like Charterhouse and (the eponymous) Rugby – then in due course the masters of Oxford and Cambridge – saw its value as a way of instilling in boys the imperial values of discipline and manliness. At this point being paid for your skill or effort was firmly categorised as a vulgar aspiration of the ungentlemanly. The gentleman amateur who didn’t do it for money was promoted as the model football player, along with the new, strict rules of the games known nowadays as rugby and soccer.

Within a very few years, however, consistent payment for the best players crept in. Even worse for the Oxbridge amateurs, most of these top players were from growing, northern industrial cities like Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow, dedicated to professionalism and determined to play their best game, gentlemanly or not. This was the origin of the split that is still technically in existence, between the Football Association founded by ex public schoolboys in 1863 – although they magnanimously voted to ‘allow’ payment to players in 1885 – and the Football League which was founded in 1888 by a draper who was also director of Aston Villa, incorporating six teams from the north-west of England and six from the Midlands. Some gentlemen switched to Rugby football in disgust, so they wouldn’t have to compete against vulgarian teams who played for money. Posh gents like the Corinthians refused to even enter competitions that awarded trophies, making themselves increasingly ridiculous, irrelevant and uncompetitive with high-minded tactics such as not trying to score or defend from the recently introduced and completely by-the-rules penalty kicks; they believed (or affected to believe) that no gentleman would commit a foul in the first place. Those who played for the thrill of it looked down upon the common players who thought it should pay, had to seek subsidy from elsewhere, or needed to work at a non-vocational job to avoid dropping out entirely. The class issues I’ve drawn attention to are still very much live ones. Like an Old Corinthian with his nose out of joint because some shop boy from Tyneside is better at playing his game, the well off can choose whether or not to play the arts for fun or for profit as they see fit, and they often sneer at or simply don’t comprehend those who can’t or won’t make that choice.

Hence the blatantly retrograde and sexist title, because for most of us in the early 21st century it seems to be exactly the state into which our vocation is devolving; gentlemen and players. Duncan Campbell, 2014’s Turner Prize winner, declared that he was going to spend his £25,000 prize money on paying his rent and other household bills. This is how we support artists in Britain. All an artist needs to do in order to make ends meet is to be one of the four nominees for the Turner Prize and win, every year. s

  Alistair Gentry is a writer, artist and performer. According to a passing stranger who recently shouted out of a car window, he is also a fucking weirdo. He is based, divides his time and works.