Ashley also owns brands Dunlop Slazenger, Kangol, Lonsdale and Karrimor, and has shares in Blacks Leisure Group and JD Sports. He has faced previous allegations of corporate abuse in 2016 after reports emerged of Sports Direct warehouse staff being paid below minimum wage and promised permanent contracts in exchange for sexual favours, and after investigations uncovered that ambulances had been called to the company’s Derbyshire warehouse 76 times in two years. A parliamentary inquiry at the time compared Sports Direct’s working practices to those of a Victorian workhouse.
Before stores closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sports Direct increased the prices of some exercise equipment by more than 50% as it anticipated the public’s need to maintain mental and physical wellbeing within a far more restricted lifestyle. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have launched a COVID-19 taskforce against exploitative practices and Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, expressed her frustrations at Sports Direct via Twitter.
At first, Ashley also defied government orders to close all non-essential UK retailers, thereby forcing his staff to put themselves at risk of infection in order to receive their wages. The company sent an email to employees 30 minutes after the government’s policy announcement, arguing that the retailer provides an “essential service”. Leonnie Foster, a factory worker from Nottinghamshire, explained the message Ashley is sending in these emergent circumstances: ‘I feel massively at risk and I feel like my health, life and family, as I still live at home with my parents and sister, are undervalued.”
The sportswear tycoon rescinded his earlier claim after backlash poured in from politicians and the media alike. Michael Gove told Good Morning Britain “I can’t see any justification for Sports Direct remaining open”, whilst Labour MP Ian Lavery tweeted that Ashley should “Take some responsibility and SHUT UP SHOP”.
Despite apologising and insisting he would “learn from his mistakes”, Ashley has faced further scorn after it was revealed he has now furloughed all NUFC staff under the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme but will still pay a full salary to the first-team players and coaches. Former Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan criticised the move on radio station Talksport, saying “Come on football, you can’t sit there and seriously say ‘let’s not cut the players’ wages first before we go to the government to fund our own staff’. NUFC has also stated it has no intention to freeze monthly payments from season ticket holders despite the cancellation of all matches. The Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) appealed to the club without response before expressing its concern publicly via Twitter: “We find it incredibly disturbing that the club continues to take payments from supporters during these extremely difficult times, in what is a health and economic crisis.”