The responses were as instant as they were predictable. It was the summer of 2014, and Manchester United were interested in a talented young English left back.
“Luke Shaw should stay at Southampton, it’s important for his development.”
“Luke Shaw should show some loyalty to the team that made him, not jump for a paycheck.”
It was a resounding message from media outlets and former players alike, and not an uncommon one. Raheem Sterling was accused of the same this summer. There was a sliver of truth: Luke Shaw was going to get a significant pay raise, and there was a small risk he would not get the playing time he needed to develop into the player he can be. And while the argument wrongly discredits Shaw’s contributions to his own development, it is true that Southampton, over the course of 11 years, had invested in and contributed significantly to Shaw’s development.
Fast forward to the present day. After a shaky first year plagued by injuries, Shaw was finally proving the critics wrong. He had finally grinded into form and become a rare bright spot in the otherwise dour start of Manchester United’s season. But it only took one moment, a sudden and devastating slide tackle, for that development to be stopped in its tracks.
Now Shaw faces months of rehab before he can even walk again, months more until he can kick a soccer ball. And, with a compound fracture of both of his lower leg bones, it remains to be seen if he will ever be able to reach the same level again. This isn’t to say he can’t return — Aaron Ramsey suffered a similar injury and is playing better than ever — but history tells us that’s an aberration; this is usually a career-stunting, if not a career-ending, injury.
SEE MORE: Shaw scheduled for second surgery on Friday.
So as the cameras zoomed in on Shaw face’s on Tuesday, choking back tears through his oxygen mask, it was hard not to think of those who called him greedy just a year ago.
It’s part of a recurring theme in soccer and sports fandom at large: turning athletes into commodities. We can sit at our desks and pinpoint the difference between a $20 million player and a $25 million player. We can look at a wage bill and say this player is worth $90,000 per week while another is worth $150,000. Often, it’s used as ammunition against certain clubs. This club is doing things right, while another is doing things wrong.
It’s a bizarre moralization of player wage and worth. It’s true that player value and wages have ballooned in recent years, but is that wrong when revenue has also exploded? $200,000 per week in salary sounds like a lot — and, of course, it is relative to the average person — but it’s not compared to the millions pulled in by clubs each matchday. Shouldn’t we want the players, the ones creating this entertainment we love so much, to have as big a piece of the pie as possible?
And that’s not to mention the blatant hypocrisy. Those same critics would not hesitate to take a higher-paying job with a higher-profile company in their own line of work. It would be crazy not to.
But even worse, the argument overlooks the fact that players are human beings. Many professional athletes come from meager backgrounds, with the same societal landmines that derail so many low-income families around the world. For many, their athletic prowess is their only ticket out. And for a very select few, that ticket turns out to be a jackpot.
But even for the small percentage that hit the lottery of becoming a professional athlete, success is usually fleeting. The average pro can only hope to play at the top level for a couple of years. And since reaching the highest level means players can’t focus on anything else, most don’t have the skills to make a living after their career ends.
In their brief time at the top, players must accumulate a lifetime of wealth, and hopefully enough to pass on to their children, who will almost certainly not become professional athletes. And even for the best players, ones destined for a decade or more of glory, it can all disappear with one tackle.
One second, Luke Shaw was perhaps the most promising young defender in England. The next, he faces the possibility of being cast from that level forever. And it wasn’t because he lost focus or stopped training with the same tenacity due to his paycheck. It wasn’t because a move stunted his development, or because of anything else he could control. It was the cruelty of chance – countless micro-decisions over the course of the game that just happened to leave him at that exact spot on the field at the wrong time.
This tackle happened on a glamorous Champions League night in front of millions of viewers. But it just as easily could’ve happened in a cup game with Southampton, or even during a training session. In fact, it happens practically every day. Promising youngsters are a dime a dozen, but many are derailed by one bad tackle.
Luke Shaw was able to navigate those obstacles to make it to the big time, and now he could be out of it. And if he is never able to recover to the level he is now — if he’s an Eduardo da Silva instead of an Aaron Ramsey — the voices that claimed “he has plenty of time to develop, he needs to refuse the pay raise and pay back the team that made him” will be as cruel as the tackle that crippled him.
So, for the sake of his family, thank goodness he took that contract. For the sake of all the youngsters who didn’t make it, thank goodness he took that contract. And hopefully, we as a fanbase will remember this the next time a young player is linked to a payday they deserve.
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