Aaron Lennon - Let's all help "Lift the Weight"


I believe that one of the key issues in Sports Law this year will be player welfare, so it was ironic that I first read of this story en route to yesterday's excellent Premier Sports Network 2017 Player Care Conference in Manchester.

The Professional Footballers' Association ("PFA") have today disclosed that last year alone, 160 members contacted their welfare service, of which 62 were current players and 98 ex-pros.

In February I attended the Rugby Players' Association ("RPA") launch of its own, inspirational 'Lift the Weight' campaign. This is specifically designed to help remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues and connect with members, by openly sharing the stories and experiences of team-mates and peers, creating a better understanding of mental health issues within the sport. The RPA hope that the campaign will resonate well beyond its membership, reaching players at all levels and in all sports, as well as the wider population.

An astonishing and sad fact is that one in four of all people in the UK will be affected by mental illness in any given year, with anxiety and depression the most common symptoms. 

It's no surprise that the pressures and strains that act as a frequent catalyst to mental health issues are magnified for professional sportspeople. Coping with injury. The intense expectation to perform. Constant media scrutiny and last but not least, meeting the occasionally unrealistic expectations of fans. These factors all combine to build a unique set of pressures. 

Despite an increasingly diverse number of athletes and celebrities, spanning Frank Bruno, Rio Ferdinand, Freddie Flintoff and even Prince Harry, speaking out about their own struggles with mental health, the stigma around these issues remains. 

For example and notwithstanding this informative article, the Daily Mail was initially and heavily criticised for running the story by reference to Lennon's alleged weekly wage, which and of course has absolutely nothing to do with his health.

Let's be clear, the issues surrounding player welfare are by no means limited to mental health. They can cover topics as diverse as safeguarding minors from abuse, best financial advice, player education, post retirement career panning, team security, social media management and working with families. These are all important and require careful attention, in a sporting world that is becoming bigger, brasher more competitive and unpredictable by the day. 

But for now and as former PFA Chairman Clarke Carlisle has pointed out, sports clubs can sometimes be accused of failing to put in place proper measures for the psychological and emotional well-being of players. There is often no stipulation about the base level of care required, so the issue is left to each club’s interpretation of what it thinks is appropriate. As a result a great deal of time is focused on disaster recovery and crisis management, after the existence of a mental health issue has already become clear. 

Carlisle believes that there should be a much greater emphasis on early intervention, education with respect to coping strategies and emotional literacy. All of this could, he reasons, be introduced at academy level, so that when a player first comes into a professional environment, he understands that football is a vocation and not his sole identity.

Its difficult to argue with that but for now, let's all wish Aaron Lennon a full and speedy recovery.

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Sport rallies behind Aaron Lennon as figures reveal 62 players sought help last year... and the numbers are rising
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