A new regulator for English football can support players’ mental health

By Daniel Gunn

While the arguments continue for and against a new football regulator, the case for an independent body that can better enhance health, accessibility, and fairness continues to be made by events at large. This year, 15 players in Spain women’s national team have refused to play for the manager, citing mental health pressure. Ronaldo Nazario, widely regarded as one of the greatest men’s players, recently opened up about depression and his mental health. And beyond football, cricket and rugby players are increasingly granted time away from their sport to recover from mental health battles.

The state of play

In an environment which lauds toughness, it can be difficult for footballers to speak out about their struggles with mental health. Yet increasingly, as society changes, players, managers, pundits, and other figures around the game are starting to talk, exposing the need for more support.

Right now, there’s no consistent standard of mental health measures to which clubs or football organisations are held, meaning support, where it exists, is patchy. There are numerous cases where footballers’ struggles with their mental health have led to distress, early retirement, and even suicide. Affordability is clearly not a problem, at least at the top. And based on the rhetoric from clubs, players, leagues, organisations, and the football media, there’s a will to change. What’s needed is a coherent and coordinated approach to improving the mental health resilience of prospective and professional footballers before, during, and after their playing careers. And well-designed regulation, led by the needs of players, may be the right solution.

Before a career kicks off

Long before their first contract, prospective players face disproportionate stress levels relative to their age and maturity. Support is often insufficient. The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) is, naturally, for professionals – help prior to a playing career is limited. Yet this is often a time when players are at their most vulnerable: 70 percent of Premier League academy prospects don’t secure contracts in the Premier League or English Football League. There are no mandated standards of aftercare for released prospects. And, as the tragic case of Jeremy Wisten shows, even the very top academies can be found wanting when it comes to support for mental health.

With no financial incentive to support released prospects, regulation should, as a minimum, set standards and improve compliance to reduce the risk of vulnerable young people leaving the game without any fallback. This need not take the form of a heavy-handed auditing force; rather, it could play the role of demystification and education by setting well-defined codes of conduct for generally well-intentioned football authorities to use as guidance.

Life in the spotlight

As professionals, players face even more pressure and expectation, particularly with the popularity and financial standing of modern-day football. Two in five professionals have reported experiencing abuse on Twitter. Despite campaigns from the PFA and The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) lobbying for prosecutions, police powers are limited, given much of the abuse comes from social media accounts outside of the UK.

Mental health support for footballers at this stage is at its best. There are 200 PFA welfare consultants employed to support members. Yet, with 10 per cent of the PFA’s 54,000 members having sought counselling at some stage, there remains a major imbalance between support demand and supply. The weighted effort towards the men’s game exacerbates this, as nearly double the number of players in the women’s game have mental health struggles as their male counterparts. So, while the greatest support a footballer can expect for their mental health exists during their career, the stress of football shows that even this isn’t enough. Regulation could help provide consistent mental health support and, where relevant, give players a route to escalate concerns to ensure nobody falls through the cracks.

After the final whistle

Retirement is a challenging time for a footballer and any sportsperson: over half of retired sportspeople have concerns for their mental health. This problem is acute throughout football, yet the same 200 welfare consultants serve professionals and retired players. At the top, the rush of playing in front of packed stadia is suddenly taken away. With this drastic change, retirees struggle to adapt. Lower down the pyramid; these problems can be paired with financial pressures. Average wages in League One are £2,000 a week – a sizeable pay packet for 15 years as a player. Yet that rapidly dwindles with time, especially for individuals forced to adapt after an entire life spent in one career.

The lack of provision from a sport to which players have dedicated their entire careers, and much of their lives is a grave concern. The list of retired players suffering from mental health is well-publicised – and football, despite vast resources, is not yet doing enough. Given common standards and appropriate incentives to act, football could become an industry leader in regulating professional aftercare, the need for which can only grow in an increasingly pressurised world.

How should the new regulator help?

Establishing a new regulator presents a unique opportunity to better support players’ mental health. A clear and coordinated approach from a legitimate authority can build the mental health resilience of players before, during, and after their careers. The implications beyond football are evident – especially in vocations likely to span the entirety of an individual’s early and adult life – and it is vital, for both players and clubs, that any such regulation is right. We’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on how to design that approach. Experience tells us that, as in football, scouting widely is essential to good regulation.

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Daniel Gunn Public Services Expert

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