Body image a leading cause of stress for professional footballers
PFA head of welfare Michael Bennett says gambling has become a major concern
Michael Bennett: “We do have certain spikes when more members use our services, such as the start of the new year, especially with the transfer window”
These can be worrying times for a professional footballer. Will my transfer come through before the window closes? Who’s that player coming in on loan? How’s my six-pack looking after the Christmas?
It’s sometimes easy to make light of these issues, especially when factoring in certain bank balances, when in fact the consequences can be and often are deadly: as head of welfare at England’s Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), Michael Bennett, can testify on numerous counts.
“We do have certain spikes when more members use our services, such as the start of the new year, especially with the transfer window” says Bennett.
“Maybe younger players are trying to get out on loan, play more first-team football. You also have managers coming and going, and maybe that individual player is no longer in that manager’s mind. Obviously at the end of the season as well, when there’s uncertainty about contract extensions, when and where they might be.”
Bennett has been head of welfare at the PFA since early 2012, that role partly prompted by Wales midfielder Gary Speed taking his own life in November 2011.
Bennett, a former England youth international, experienced mental issues in his own career, beginning with a serious knee injury when playing with Charlton Athletic in 1991. He made over 150 league appearances for six clubs before retiring at 29. He then began a career in sports counselling.
During that time he has seen an increase in the awareness of mental health issues within the professional game, and also an evolution: it used to be mostly physical and mental stress, now gambling addiction and body image are growing problems.
“Definitely body image has become a big issue recently. We’re seeing a lot more cases of that. Players ripping their shirts off [despite it being a yellow-card offence], all cut, six-pack, great physique – all that brings issues as well. And you can imagine some of the banter going on in the dressing rooms between players on stuff like that. All that’s coming to the surface as well.
“But also recently it’s when players leave the game. They’re used to being fit, slim, running around, then suddenly they’re not, start to put on some weight, and all that causes some self-esteem issues as well.”
In many instances the issue is not immediately apparent: last May Everton winger Aaron Lennon was detained under the Mental Health Act amid concerns for his welfare (he made a welcome return to the field over Christmas).
According to the latest PFA figures, 160 players made contact in 2016 regarding welfare issues; of those 62 were current league players, 98 were former players. Those figures, says Bennett, are a little misleading.
“In some ways it shows how much stigma still has to do with it. Former players are less concerned about what people will think about them, or what managers will think about them, so they do come forward with issues a little easier. Current players still seem to have a problem with it.”
Gambling issues have also come to the fore, not helped by widespread betting sponsorship within the English game.
“We’re seeing a lot of issues with stress and anxiety, and when we get down to the root issue the main culprit is gambling. It’s a murky bit of water, and part of the business unfortunately.
“I don’t agree with it, watching a game of football on Sky and a betting ad comes up every two minutes. When it’s in your face like that, and you can’t get away from it, then it can become an issue.”
The standard employment contract cites mental illness as the same as physical illness, though few players are aware of that. “There are still holes there, more to be done, part of that is getting more players to talk about their experiences.”
Bennett is part of Saturday’s First Fortnight panel discussion on some of the enduring stigmas surrounding sport and mental health. For more see www.firstfortnight.ie