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File photo shows a soccer ball held by Manchester United's David de Gea during the warm up before the Premier League game versus Watford, in Manchester, England, on Feb. 23, 2020.

Lee Smith/Reuters

As the sports world struggles to adapt to the new realities of the COVID-19 outbreak, few leagues have upset more people than the English Premier League.

Since the pandemic ended the EPL’s season on March 13, the soccer league’s executives seem to have found new ways of picking fights. They’ve battled players over demands for a pay cut and faced public outrage when some clubs laid off hundreds of employees and tapped taxpayers to cover most of their wages. Even the league’s offer to donate £20-million ($34.8-million) to the National Health Service (NHS) has been widely derided as paltry for a multibillion-pound organization.

The EPL’s conduct “exposes the crazy economics in English football and the moral vacuum at its centre,” said Julian Knight, a Conservative MP who chairs the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee. “It sticks in the throat.”

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The players haven’t escaped criticism either and last week Health Minister Matt Hancock slammed them for not doing their part in the national effort to fight the virus. “The first thing that Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut,” he said.

The EPL is used to getting attention, just not like this. It’s by far the biggest and richest soccer league in the world, generating around £5-billion in revenue every year. Most of the owners are billionaires and the average player salary is around £3-million annually.

The virus outbreak has left the league reeling. EPL officials say at least £1-billion will be lost if the season is cancelled and some of the 20 clubs could face bankruptcy.

But public sympathy is running low. The tipping point for many people came last week when several teams – including Liverpool and Tottenham – furloughed more than 500 staff and took advantage of a government program that pays 80 per cent of the wages of workers who have been laid off because of the virus.

The move infuriated fans and politicians who said taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing wealthy owners. Some commentators have called for the teams to be banned from the transfer market, meaning no player trades and Knight has suggested the government impose a special tax on clubs to recoup the money.

The fury in Liverpool reached a crescendo over the weekend when the local MPs, the city’s mayor and the Reds’ fan club all lined up against the team, which has been the runaway leader in the league this season. “No million-pound-plus profit-making organization should be relying on taxpayer subsidies in times of crises,” said the Spirit of Shankly, a fan club named after long-time manager Bill Shankly, who instilled pride and selflessness in the team. Many fans noted that Liverpool turned a £42-million profit last year and that it’s owned by a pair of U.S. billionaires whose stable of sports teams also includes the Boston Red Sox.

On Monday, Liverpool finally relented. “We believe we came to the wrong conclusion last week,” chief executive Peter Moore said in an open letter. He added that the club will find “alternative ways to operate” without applying for the government program.

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But Tottenham and the other clubs – Newcastle United, Norwich City and Bournemouth – have refused to back down and some clubs are still considering using the government’s furlough program.

Tottenham has put nearly half of the club’s 550 non-playing staff on the program even though it turned a profit of £68.5-million last year. The remainder will take a 20-per-cent pay cut. “I have no doubt we will get through this crisis but life will take some time to get back to normal,” the club’s co-owner, British businessman Daniel Levy, said in a statement. The team’s fan club, Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust, has called on Levy to rethink the decision. “We are now saying it clearly and in public – do not further damage the Club’s reputation, listen to your fans,” the trust said Wednesday.

On Monday, the EPL’s chief executive, Richard Masters, caused more controversy by defending the clubs’ decision. In a letter to Knight’s committee. Masters said clubs had shown restraint and that the furlough program “was meant for the whole economy, including many enterprises which might be regarded as providing entertainment or otherwise dependent on elite talent.”

That drew a sharp response from Knight. “It is frankly laughable to think that clubs are showing restraint on use of government money to pay non-playing staff and flies in the face of public opinion,” he said on Tuesday. “It is time for the Premier League to stop defending the indefensible.”

The EPL is still hoping to negotiate a pay cut or wage deferral with the players and talks continue this week. So far the players have balked, arguing that owners should make more of a sacrifice. The Professional Footballers’ Association, which represents the players, also said a league-wide cut would deprive the treasury of around £200-million in tax revenue, which could be directed to the NHS. Several players have started donating part of their salary to the NHS and others want to negotiate directly with their club and not the league.

“Why are footballers suddenly the scapegoats?,” former England captain Wayne Rooney wrote in a newspaper article last weekend. “It feels as if it’s to shame the players – to force them into a corner where they have to pick up the bill for lost revenue. … Whatever way you look at it, we’re easy targets.”

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