The cover story in this week’s New York Times Magazine is about the Dutch youth soccer club/academy Ajax. I’ve tried to steer clear of World Cup-related articles, cause, you know, but if the international competition that makes so many Americans pretend to care about soccer provides an excuse to run this article, then so be it. Michael Sokolove, the author of Warrior Girls which I’ve been meaning to read, does a great job bringing the reader into what sounds like a complicated and insular world. Ajax used to be a top-flight Dutch club team, but with the spread of competition continent-wide, they couldn’t compete. Now Ajax molds some of the top Dutch soccer players from near infancy to world-wide (except for America, except during the World Cup) fame.
I found the most interesting part of the piece to be the financial arrangement that sustains Ajax. The academy pays for everything, in return, they hold the players’ contracts. Martin Jol, the coach of Ajax’s first team, describes it this way, “I think that is the purpose of Ajax, to develop players and bring them up to the first team as young as possible. And then we sell them, not for peanuts but for a lot of money.” When a player doesn’t go pro, they chalk it up as a loss. To avoid these kinds of losses, Ajax’s training process involves a ruthless series of cuts as players get older. This arrangement presents what I believe are some interesting questions involving the production of value. In some ways, Ajax is like a factory that produces soccer players. Ajax holds the fixed capital of the facilities and employs the variable capital of the coaches and trainers. This machinery produces soccer players, some of whom can net the club serious cash. Sokolove writes,
“Late one afternoon in the cafe at De Toekomst, I was talking with a coach, Patrick Landru, who works with the academy’s youngest age groups, when he asked if he could take my writing pad for a moment. I handed it over, and he put down five names, then drew a bracket to their right. Outside the bracket, he wrote, ’80 million euros.’ The names represented five active ‘Ajax educated’ players, as he called them, all of whom entered the academy as children, made it through without being sent away and emerged as world-class players. Eighty million euros (or even more) is what Ajax got in return for selling the rights to the players to other professional clubs. Once a team pays this one-time transfer fee, it then negotiates a new, often very large, contract with the player.”
That’s a lot of money, but it still doesn’t sound like a bad deal for the kids. Imagine being 7 years old and being asked to work at Ajax, Sokolove compares it to a little leaguer getting a call to try out for the Yankees. They pay for everything, and on the off-chance they train you well enough to become a rich soccer star, they get a cut of the action. Otherwise, not your loss. But there’s something severely wrong with the factory metaphor. The trainers, coaches, scouts, and administrators aren’t the only ones doing work at Ajax. The kids – I resolutely use this term without derogatory connotations – are working their asses off in drills and sprints. Everyone there is engaged in producing the same thing: world-class soccer players. The boys – Ajax is single-sex – are working in a hyper-competitive environment in order to reproduce themselves as elite players. The coaches blow whistles and the players run; who’s doing more labor here? If there’s any question as to the importance of the kids’ effort, ask any coach what happens to a naturally gifted young athlete who’s not willing to “put in the work.”
It is because we see the players as commodities that we can’t see them as producers. As one player’s father puts it, when asked by Sokolove why the kids don’t practice more, “Of course, because they do not want to do anything to injure them or wear them out. They’re capital. And what is the first thing a businessman does? He protects his capital.” But of course the kids are more than capital, they are agents, workers. I want to push this logic even further. One of the complaints I’ve heard about (post-)operaist theory is that it’s based too strongly in cognitive labor, but I think team sports works as a good counter-point. It’s pretty easy to see how the kids who will become stars are producing value through their labor, it’s somewhat similar to the question of pay for college athletes. Even if there’s debate about whether pay would corrupt the game and its players, no one denies college athletes are making some people pretty rich.
But what about the kid who gets cut at 15 and becomes a dentist who dominates the local medical professionals’ league? Has he produced anything, or is he free-riding? Is the (relatively) poor player also a producer? Imagine a hypothetical in which Ajax management knows for sure which toddlers had the potential to be bankable pros. Would they only train these players? It seems cost-effective to do so, but there aren’t that many kids who will end up making the bigs, and playing with a team is an important part of training. Even if “my teammates make me better” is a gracious cliché, young players who only practiced with coaches couldn’t jump right to professional competition. Additionally, the cut system isn’t just to avoid losses, but to motivate players through an atmosphere of competition. The poor players are productive even by being cut. If they weren’t there, Ajax would have to pay semi-pros or amateurs to play against their students. The “losses” are no such thing, these players are integral parts of the process by which a valuable soccer player is produced. In the real world, no one can be sure which amateur will make millions. All the players – as well as the staff – are part of the Ajax machine that will (re)produce elite and expensive athletes as such. Value that seems very individual is in reality profoundly social.
There are a lot of places to take this line of thought, and I’ll be working on some of them over the next few months. It seems to me that a lot of the labor young people perform is not recognized as such because we imagine them either as commodities (in the case of soccer players) or consumers (in the case of college students or unpaid interns) rather than producers. The way young people’s liminal labor calls into question traditional divisions between these categories is something I’ll be working on a lot, so stay tuned for more.