Jack Grealish learns that he is now a prize exhibit in a human zoo
Young stars fully entitled to let their hair down but with big bucks comes big responsibility
Published 19/06/2015 | 02:30
The instinctive response to photographs of Jack Grealish lying apparently drunk in the street in Tenerife is to think it is a bit embarrassing but that he is just a young lad, on holiday, and should be cut a bit of slack.
It would be Draconian to be too judgmental and to pillory him for his behaviour. Grealish is still only 19, he is not harming anyone else and we do not yet know the full story.
The same could also be said about Jack Wilshere puffing on a cigarette in a swimming pool in Las Vegas last year, or Raheem Sterling or Kyle Walker with their 'hippie crack' laughing gas, or Wilshere and Sterling with shisha pipes.
They are all young, they are all under pressure at times and they are all human. They are all still growing up.
Crucially, they also now live in a digital age where people seem to think that an event cannot not happen, that life cannot be lived without it being posted on social media and shared around the internet.
There is no respecting of privacy. Everyone wants to own a piece of everyone else and pass their opinion on them, or get close to them, or be 'liked' or followed or approved of or believe they have the right to intrude upon or provoke.
It is why another response to the Grealish incident, in particular, is: why would anyone think that with him lying there it would be a good idea to take a photograph and post it online?
It is just unnecessary. It is unnecessary for it to happen to anyone but Premier League footballers being, well, Premier League footballers, have risk of intrusion many times over.
They have become the prize exhibits in a human zoo and it is not an edifying or healthy sight.
It is hard to imagine exactly what it is like, 24/7, but a glimpse of it is afforded when you spend time socially with players and managers and it can certainly feel precarious.
Footballers are deemed public property. Fans feel like they own them and that when they sign for their club it is not just a player going about his profession but something more personal and emotional.
The danger is it becomes too extreme and people lose sight of the reality while players become mistrusting and fearful and that can become a vicious circle which widens the growing disconnect between players and public.
We all now debate a player's moral worth as much as their value on the transfer market - how does the average fan (or journalist) know whether Sterling is worth £40m or £50m? - as much as their playing ability.
But there is a problem. And it is not the role model argument.
Although footballers are not the main role models for children - parents need to accept that responsibility - they can have a huge impact on them and can be a role model.
Some players embrace the concept, especially the older ones. Others shy away from it, but there is no denying the impact their behaviour can have, especially if they do something positive and beneficial.
No, the problem is this: the trappings of being a Premier League footballer are now so great, with players being millionaires before they leave their teens, and millionaires who are themselves assets worth many millions of pounds for their clubs, that they unfortunately have to live with this kind of scrutiny, and pay some attention to it.
Grealish is, maybe, a £20m asset to Aston Villa and here is someone of that value lying in the street.
Sterling has turned down £100,000 a week and wants to leave Liverpool, who value him at £50m.
Manchester City have already indicated they will pay £40m - and he is inhaling gas from a balloon.
It could be argued that the players do not set the value; they just want to play football.
However, that does rather fall down when they demand big contracts or big moves, and Sterling's cause was not helped by the unguarded comments of his agent, Aidy Ward.
Morally it all amounts to a very difficult argument. There is no right or wrong.
It is certainly not about begrudging young working-class men earning vast amounts of money very quickly. Good on them for that.
They deserve it for using their talent and maximising a talent is something everyone should aspire to do in life, even if the wage inflation in football appears out of control.
So there is a balance to be struck. A balance between expecting them to be some kind of paragons of virtue who never misbehave, who are clean-living and remain robotically dedicated to their sport, and not simply accepting that they are young men who should be allowed to let their hair down just like any other young men do.
A footballer is not the average young man. The average young man does not have their talent and opportunity and, yes, the trappings of wealth and fame that come with it.
And with the big bucks does come big responsibility, although those who try to trip them up should hang their heads in shame. But footballers are athletes and should behave as such and respect their sport.