Mike Ashley might just have found a way to make the rest of the country despise him with the same level of righteous vitriol Newcastle fans have reserved for years.
Of course, we’ve all always known he was [REDACTED]. A cartoon caricature of a yob tycoon. The puffy reddened face of race-to-the-bottom zero-hour bastardry. We all sort of remember that time he had to get a wad of £50 notes out of his pockets when holding a press open day at one of his many warehouses where workers were earning below minimum wage.
We all know that Sports Direct is not famed for its progressive or enlightened treatment of its staff and we all know Lonsdale trainers are sh*t.
But only in Newcastle, where his ownership of one of those great football clubs that truly is the heart of its community has been an absolute clown show, has he truly been hated in the way his actions warrant.
Until now. The world is changing extremely fast as coronavirus rips through country after country in truly terrifying fashion. It will be worth remembering who the biggest bastards were when this was happening and, if we’re honest, to take a moment of introspection to tell ourselves that they were precisely the bastards we already knew were the biggest bastards and that the lure of a cheap pair of football boots or reasonably-priced pint should never have hidden this from us.
The speed with which Ashley’s Sports Direct went public with its attempt to keep its caverns open and circumvent a government decision to close all non-essential shops, a horrendously difficult decision made in the most testing times imaginable and with the sole intention of saving as many lives as possible in the face of an unprecedented threat, really was extraordinary. Yet you kick yourself for even retaining the capacity to be surprised by just how cartoonishly despicable known villains can be.
That they’ve since rowed back (hey, buy our rowing machines!) in the face of widespread criticism should not deflect from the initial brazen artless turpitude of it.
That Ashley didn’t even have the b*llocks to put his own name to his company’s outrageously cynical, disingenuous and outright dangerous statement on Monday night is as revealing as the statement itself, in which Sports Direct attempt to pretend that multipacks of Slazenger socks are an essential item in the face of of a global pandemic.
Signed not by the man who owns 63% of Frasers Group but instead by CFO Chris Wootton, the statement arseholed:
“We stock a huge range of sports equipment for exercising at home from yoga mats, gym balls, skipping ropes, weights, indoor and outdoor trampolines, resistance bands through to bikes, treadmills, rowing machines, static exercise bikes, multigyms, fitness clothing and footwear in order for people to remain fit and healthy during this period of isolation, indeed home fitness is the number one trending topic on social media after coronavirus itself.
“Against the backdrop of the closure of gyms the demand for these types of products has increased exponentially as the population looks to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
“Consequently, we are uniquely well placed to help keep the UK as fit and healthy as possible during this crisis and thus our Sports Direct and Evans Cycles stores will remain open where possible to allow us to do this (in accordance with the Government’s current social distancing guidance).
“There is no one else that has the range of product and range of stores to make this reasonably accessible for the whole population.”
It’s hard to imagine a company getting the tone and mood so gravely wrong. There hasn’t been a case like it since, well, since the last time Lord Pubtw*t of Wetherspoons was allowed on national TV to discuss life-endangering nonsense. But, still. To glibly and slyly pretend to have the nation’s wellbeing at heart without sparing a word or apparently even a thought for all your frontline staff (and anyone they subsequently come in contact with), those who you are placing in very real and grave danger for profit, is truly staggering.
And the most ridiculous part? They are only being asked to close their stores. They can keep their online shop open. You can still buy all your home exercise gear and oversized mugs from Sports Direct. But you absolutely shouldn’t.