Sportspeople and Politics and…

From Leo McKinstry’s excellent biography of Geoff Boycott, Boycs:

Like most top sportsmen, who live by competition and individualism, Boycott’s political views are firmly on the right. Indeed, he could almost be described as the identikit Thatcherite, the miner’s son who built his own fortune through diligence and hard-nosed professionalism. However, though he might be inclined towards Conservatism, he has never been involved in Tory politics. In fact, his only foray into political activism was when he lent his support to Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party in the run-up to the 1997 General Election, explaining that his Euro-scepticism was motivated by his patriotism. But Boycott was quick to turn down any idea that he wanted formally to enter politics. ‘I am not a political animal and as someone who prefers to speak his mind I might find it impossible to follow a specific line of policy in Parliament.’

For someone who describes himself as not a political animal, that shows a sharp awareness of the reality of politics that one might wish onto the rest of the non-political population. The idea that political parties exist to achieve compromise between large numbers of people each possessing their own individual and conflicting outlooks is lost these days on a lot of people who are now more familiar with the model of the one-issue pressure group and expect Labour and the Tories to conform to it.

Whether “most sportsmen” tend to the right is open to enormous question. Hunter Davies canvassed the political views of two separate generations of Tottenham Hotspur players (in the early ’70s and mid ’80s) and found a mix of views no different from what you’d expect from any randomly selected group of British citizens. Only the fervent left-winger Steve Perryman stood out in any way. More recently, Keegan came out for Thatcher, Ferguson for Labour and Blair.

One might as well assume that because of Sir Patrick Moore, astronomers are the territory of UKIP.

Nevertheless, the essential question – is there a trend to the politics of people in sport – is a tempting one. There are similar questions being asked and answered – are sportsmen prone to domestic violence? or drug abuse? do they get “addicted” to the “high” of sport and can’t come down when they retire?

Perhaps someone with more statistical training than I enjoy might have something to say about the quality of sample that a group of sportsmen represents. Matthew, Daniel? Because I have a hunch about it that I can’t substantiate. What I believe, but can’t prove, is that the nature of the sample in these cases is restricting the outcome of the study. There are not so many “top” sportsmen as to create a useful mean and average, nor are comparative studies into e.g. milkmen and accounting executives and.. lumberjacks, for instance, being made. There is an undercurrent of enthusiasm for psychological flaws in sportsmen that’s absent for any other group other than soldiers and politicians: no one’s going to undertake psychological studies of sportsmen in the hope that the answer will be “no”.


11 Replies to “Sportspeople and Politics and…”

  1. Pure guess, of course, James, but I imagine – like most people I suppose, including yourself? -that a lot of football people would be Labour because of football’s working class roots. I am sure I have read that Alex Ferguson is staunchly red, and remember that Keegan was too, if only because his family had been as long as he knew. Becoming ‘top players’ and making a lot of money might make less difference than we think. Cricket and rugby might break down differently, though it would be interesting to see whether, for instance, Durham, Yorkshire or Lancashire cricketers voted differently from those in Kent or Surrey. Would Sussex be a kind of rainbow coalition? As for rugby, would that divide along League and Union lines?

    Nothing is that simple now, I suppose, though voting patterns may retain a partly atavistic flavour.

    Would Cantona have voted Sarko or Sego? Is Jens Lehmann a supporter of Angela Merkel or Jochka Fischer? (I’d guess Merkel.)

    Boycott is exactly what one would have expected. Has anyone tried Illingworth?

  2. Mmm, Anthony Wells might be the best person. But I’ll have a go – if we use a margin of error calculator, such as this one,

    and let’s take professional footballers, of which I will say there are 2,000 (I realise I am stretching the defintion of ‘top’ here) then a sample size of 50, means 95% of the time (so you might need to do it more than once to be sure it wasn’t a rogue poll) the result will be correct within a margin of error of 13.7%, and one of 11 gives roughly 10%.

    So if, say, they split 80% to 20% Con to Lab, you could be reasonably sure there was a Conservative bias even on a sample of 50. If the split was 55 to 45, you’d need a much larger sample (the old opinion poll 3% requires 680 out of the 2000.

    There’s also of course the massively important question of a representative sample. Tottenham Hotspur wouldn’t be one, IMO, for many reasons. There are loads of other issues too, of course.

    If you asked just Premiership first team players, lets say 15 per team, so 270, then you’d need 70 for a margin of error of less than 10%.

    Is that what you meant?

  3. Sorry, typo alert, the “and one of 11 gives roughly 10%” should read “and one of 100 gives roughly 10%”.

  4. Oh, and there are 20 Premiership teams, so I can’t count in the last bit either. But you get the idea.

  5. Yes – exactly what I was after. Thanks! I suppose the next question would be, how sure could one be about comparing a sample of that kind with similar samples from other population sectors and therefore of conclusions about how typical/atypical footballers/sportsmen would be.

  6. Matthew has basically said it all, but I’d add that if one’s just interested in a simple question with a yes/no (or in this case Tory/Labour) answer, then a surprisingly small sample will do. If on the other hand you’re looking for something more difficult like domestic violence or drug addiction then it’s going to be very difficult to make it work, as you need a largish sample just to make sure you have enough events in your sample.

    There is quite a lot of work of this general sort on business leaders and entrepreneurs; it tends to be a lot more qualitative than quantitative but some of the same things come up again and again; entrepreneurs are very rarely oldest children, they are much more likely than the norm to have lost a parent, they usually start their first business very young etc. Also quite a bit with the military. But for specific professions … I’ll ask on the CT mailing list because the guys who are bound to know more about this than anyone are Kieran and Henry.

    Of course the Cubans and East Europeans did ask a lot of questions about the political views of their top sportspeople and the incidence of defection at Olympic Games suggests that they didn’t measure it very well!

  7. I actually read an article about this a week or two ago, in one of the newspapers I read – Guardian, Times, Independent – or maybe in the New Statesman. Wherever it was, it was considering politics in football, and came to the conclusion (fairly obvious) that most footballers in this country are apathetic or disinterested. There were exceptions of course – Robbie Fowler with his dockers t-shirt, Fergie as a Labour man, Keegan and someone else as Thatcherites. There were more examples abroad, particularly in Germany.

    The article supposed, and I agree, that the traditional base of footballers was left wing, but that as the top level have become wealthier and more like individual businessmen, they have become the ideal Thatcherites. The obvious problem with this is that few of them are actual Thatcherites, or indeed actual anything.

    It might be interesting to turn this on its head, and look at what the football loyalties of the rich and powerful are. I read recently that the Queen is supposed to be a Gooner (not sure if that’s true of just a PR stunt) and of course Tony Blair is a Newcastle United fan. What about the rest?

  8. Thanks Daniel – enough events: I’d suspected as much, but good to have it confirmed.

    Mathew: I’d put large sums on that Queen/Gunner thing being made up, although my scepticism is prinicipally on the grounds that the Turf is her sport in such a major way it probably doesn’t leave room for much else. All those Cup Finals might have had an influence, though. Apathy and disinterest was certainly what came through from Hunter Davies’ study of Spurs, and, frankly, it would be something footballers would still have in common with the bulk of the UK population.

  9. And it needs to be said (although it may be somehwat snobbish to do so), the bulk of the working class population. It is noticeable (and strange) that in this country, the vast majority of footballers are distinctly lower class. Compare this to Europe, where there is a greater proportion of middle class children entering the game (and more educated children), or the USA, where the game is largely a middle class one, partly because American sport relies on a university scholarship system (although lower class children benefit from this too).

    The lack of education of many footballers is Victorian in its outdatedness, and it seems that working class footballers have willingly adopted the old attitude of the FA “gentlemen”, that football was a working profession, where lower class men learnt their place and did not need to better themselves. This has very real consequences for young players who have to leave the game through injury, having few or no non-footballing qualifications. Compare this to the USA again, where there is a fair possibility that the entire national team is made up of graduates (or at least soon will be).

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