For the modern footballer, more needs to be done to guide and support our players through the pitfalls of 21st century life.
If you had asked a kid 25 years ago what they wanted to be when they were older they might have said police officer, doctor, vet, teacher or, for the more optimistic, pop star. Nowadays, the dream for many of our young generation is to become a professional footballer, and it’s easy to understand why. Footballers dominate our headlines, are some of the richest people in the world and are heralded as heroes among a large proportion of the British public. But, despite their god-like status, many of these stars seem to attract attention for the wrong reasons all too often. The question is, are the scandals a result of the lack of education, guidance and support our young players receive? Or is it simply the fact that our footballers accept this behaviour as ‘ordinary’ within their extraordinary lives?
Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, Ryan Giggs. These are names synonymous with footballing glory and success during the noughties. But they’re also names you associate with actually being naughty – they’ve appeared on the front pages for their extra-marital scandals as well as the back pages for their sporting exploits. The fact that these so-called heroes, who our kids look up to, are reported to have engaged in sexual impropriety means that this culture is normalised in our society. In the 21st century, with fame comes major responsibility, and by entering the professional realm of football you must accept that you are a role model for young children and will be scrutinised for the mistakes you make both on and off the pitch. It’s just part and parcel of the lifestyle and the multi-million pound contracts and endorsements. Big multi-national companies won’t touch you with a ten foot barge pole if you’re making the red-tops rub their hands together every Sunday morning. Yet this doesn’t seem to deter some footballers from repeatedly making these mistakes. They’ll still get paid their millions and we as a public will still put them on their pedestals, despite our sub conscious telling us it’s wrong. And that’s where we make great failings for our young generation of footballers.
Scandals may tarnish player’s’ reputations for a number of months, but good performances drive these stories out of our mind. By failing to challenge these behaviours off the pitch, we are instilling in our rising stars that this is acceptable and what should be expected within a professional context. With prolific cases of sexual abuse hitting the headlines over the past months from Hollywood to Parliament, the need for education regarding sex and consent is crucial and this must filter into the football sphere. Yes high profile cases involving Ched Evans and Adam Johnson kick started the introduction of more consent workshops within youth football settings, but the subject has since seemed to fade into the background. Brighton and Hove Albion paved the way for these workshops back in 2015, implementing guidance on the laws around consent as part of a programme called Protect, Inform and Prevent, but not much has been heard about it since. The PFA has also introduced short consent sessions for all players as a result of these high profile cases. However is a short, one-off session really enough to ensure the message sinks in? Without this fundamental education from a young age, those thrown into the spotlight will have no guidance in understanding what is right and what is wrong, not to mention what is legal. With sexual consent cases flooding the headlines from Hollywood to Parliament, it is imperative our young players are making informed choices and the institutions supporting them should be the ones providing this education.
One of the issues that contributes to sexual misadventure could be the amount of free time players have. Training takes up only a small portion of the day, and although some players participate in coaching opportunities or charity events, a lot of players are left with nothing to fill their time. Imagine what they could be doing: learning a language, studying for a degree or even giving back to the community. Although many players at all levels of the game do give back to society, there are also a few who don’t. With time on their hands and money to burn, the allure of tattoo parlours, designer clothing shops, fast cars, and the safe posse of hangers-on and Instagram models can sometimes prove too strong. This can look very appealing to those wishing to pave a way in the game.
Are we expecting too much from players in this position? It’s hard for most of us to imagine ourselves in this position. It’s easy to say what we would or wouldn’t do in a hypothetical situation – but we don’t understand the pressures and dog-eat-dog nature of a testosterone-filled dressing room.
And perhaps in due course, when times get tough and injury strikes, form dips, or personal difficulties rear their ugly heads, the youngster will realise that no sleeve tattoo or private number plate will be able to comfort them. A solid family life or a supportive partner can be priceless in these situations.
The educational opportunities for young players have come on leaps and bounds with the EFL ensuring all academy players attend school as part of their programme which they must complete, even if they sign a professional contract. However, after 18 education is no longer compulsory, and despite the PFA offering opportunities beyond school qualifications, there is little incentive for players to do when they can rely on their extortionate wages. High profile players are also often fast-tracked through their coaching qualifications, which instils a sense of entitlement that encourages the view that footballers can get what they want without the same work ethic as regular members of society, something that can then translate into their personal and sexual life. With players sitting on a weekly wage most of us would be lucky to earn in our life, everything seems to come easy, even the women and this can then blur the lines of consent. Sadly, this isn’t just happening among our footballers but can be seen in an almost parallel universe of fame and fortune in Hollywood. With money and celebrity-status comes power which has evidently been abused and responsibilities as role models have been neglected .Clearly we aren’t doing enough to give our players the opportunities to go beyond being just a footballer; we need to start fostering intelligent and compassionate players both on the field and off.
It is obvious that the institutions supporting players need to do a lot more to educate young players about real-life relationships and sexual consent, but clubs and players also need to start changing their attitude and challenge the stereotypes that have surrounded footballers and sex for the past couple of decades. We as a nation have put our players on pedestals and it’s time we demand a change before future generations fall into the same trap that football, fame and money can sometimes bring.