Rules? Premier League denying Shelter request is uncharitably ridiculous

The Premier League have turned down a charity initiative for a very good cause, and the only reason they’ve given is ‘rules are rules’.

Shelter is surely a charity which we can all support. They’ve been advocating on the subjects of homelessness and bad housing since 1966, and to this day more than half  their funding comes from donations and legacies. It doesn’t seem very contentious, to argue that homelessness and bad housing are bad things, but as the charity has recently found out, what gives football’s governing bodies cold feet can be a confusing business.

The charity’s plan was straightforward enough. On Boxing Day, they hoped that Premier League clubs would swap their home shirts for away shirts for their matches as a reminder of the housing emergency that this country faces. Clubs would be able to get the players to sign and then raffle the match-worn shirts to raise money for a good cause. It is Shelter’s hope that this campaign would be replicated across the EFL as well, and it is understood that the other body has not raised any objection.

But in this case, it wasn’t the clubs who were the issue. It was the Premier League itself. Some clubs – including Brighton & Hove Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers – got in contact with the league and requested permission to do this on Boxing Day, and were surprised to receive a reply from the league confirming that this would not be permitted because of a rule which states that ‘the first priority for home clubs will be their home strip’. The reaction to this has been considerable surprise, with Tottenham Hotspur going as far as to seek further information regarding whether the Premier League is even entitled to block this campaign. The League’s response was neither encouraging nor especially illuminating:

‘The Premier League receives a large number of requests from charities every season however we aren’t able to support all centrally. Clubs area entitled to support charitable causes, and we encourage clubs to do so, provided it is in compliance with Premier League rules.’

So, rules are rules. That much is commonly understood. And having established rules on who should be wearing what colours seems sensible, from a logistical point of view. No-one would want teams turning out for matches in identical (or near-identical) colours because clubs have not been paying attention to the Premier League’s style guide.

But at the same time, rules that are completely inflexible aren’t a great deal better, all the more so when the explanation given for not allowing this amounts to little more than saying, ‘Well, you can raise money for charity, but rules are rules.’ There is literally nothing in the Premier League’s statement which explains why this particular rule cannot be suspended for one round of matches, so that some money can be raised and issues relating to homelessness can be aired at a very effective time of the year.

It’s certainly not as though rules simply cannot be changed under any circumstances. It’s only been just over two months, for example, since Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Manchester United and the club requested special dispensation to switch him into the number seven shirt after the team’s squad numbers for the season had been confirmed. So why is this particular rule so immutable that the Premier League can’t allow it? The Premier League could use its considerable reach to push an important matter into the spotlight. But the message sent out by the Premier League by denying such an initiative doesn’t exactly speak terribly positively for the League as a body.

And, as with just about anything else these days, there may be a political side to any mention of homelessness. The intersection of politics and sport is tricky, not least because a large proportion of fans don’t consider their support for their club to be political. A majority of us would probably rather leave our politics at the door when we go to a match, and that is understandable. But the Premier League is already involved in initatives that could be considered political. Taking the knee before matches could certainly be considered political, as could the wearing of rainbow laces.

Both of these have been allowed, to the point that taking the knee is even now considered by some to have out-lived its usefulness. And it might even be argued that the enormous efforts that are made for Remembrance Sunday are ultimately political, to some extent. You only have to see the wars that rage on social media in the days and weeks building up to it – and in particular the reaction should James McLean make any utterance on the matter – to see that.

It would make a little more sense if the Premier League came out and explained the rationale behind their decision on this subject. Issuing a statement that basically says, ‘would love to help, but we’re too busy’ doesn’t really give much clarification behind their reasoning at all. And in the absence of anything substantial by way of explanation beyond ‘rules are rules’, it is to be expected that onlookers will draw their own conclusions, and that these conclusions might not be terribly complimentary.

There has been considerable talk about the Premier League and global geopolitics of late, but politics in the game doesn’t have to be big, and it doesn’t even have to be contentious. The Premier League should reverse its decision over this and allow Shelter’s voice to be heard.

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