I have been involved with sport for my whole life (player, coach, administrator) and in particular rugby league. As a youngster, I had dreams of making it as an NRL player. I owe a lot to the game for making me the person that I am today and have met many great people and made lifelong memories out of it. The majority of the people that I have been associated with throughout my time have been terrific people who are dedicated to the game.
However, I believe that collectively as a society, we are to blame for the numerous off-field incidents that have been occurring. We’re at the stage where it seems inevitable that professional footballers are going to end up in the headlines for the wrong reasons at some point throughout the year. With
Reece Walsh Brandon Smith and Cameron Munster the latest “stars” to add their name to the list.
The football codes (NRL, AFL, NFL, Rugby Union, Football) are sports that require the majority of the players to be huge risk-takers on the field. For example, you wouldn’t tell a kid to run directly at oncoming cars along Sydney’s, Parramatta Road. Yet, on the football field they are expected to do the next closest thing on a daily basis.
For a lot of these young men, they come from disadvantaged backgrounds and many struggled at school. Like a lot of boys from low-socioeconomic families, learning would not have come easy for them. One of the issues with Australia’s current education system is that the Matthew Effect is still in full force meaning that the gap is widening between those from poorer backgrounds when compared to well-off families. This doesn’t help young aspiring footballers because after we work out they are actually “good” at something, we categorise them as being a “footballer”.
The society problem
- The Golem effect: We drop our expectations for them in the classroom. This lower expectation then leads to them not feeling like they can achieve well in school. So, they focus more on their footy. We then turn our backs when behavioural issues pop up or they fail to meet the assessment criteria. This develops an ingrained sense that they are invincible because they do not suffer from the same consequences as others. We might feel like we are helping them because we are allowing them to participate in what they are good at, but really we are saying that it is okay to do the wrong thing because you are a footballer.
- Social learning theory: We are influenced by the behaviours and attitudes of those that surround us. The young athletes become surrounded by other footballers and the negative to this, is that they are not necessarily modeling positive behaviour. The boys then feel like what they are seeing (disrespecting females, fighting to stick up for their mates, getting drunk, taking drugs) is the norm.
If they get to the professional level
- Young men have their whole weeks planned for them by the hour. When they train, when they eat, how much they eat, how they need to recover, when they can go out drinking, when they have to be home. From a professional point of view, it is terrific to be organised and ensure you are able to get the most out of your players. But, the players don’t have to make decisions.
- Because they are famous, fit and footballers, they have a certain swagger about them and do tend to attract the attention of the opposite sex. Due to the girls being forward in their approach, the boys then believe that the girls want to have sex with them. While some of the women may want to, they still have the right to say no or to change their mind at any stage.
- An outdated culture of “boys being boys” and having their own set of rules to behave by. Their role models are other ex-footballers who done things just as bad, if not worse.
- After all of those years of not having to make decisions or focus in class or be surrounded by positive role-modeling; we then get to an uncontrolled situation outside of football and the players have to make decisions while under the influence of alcohol. Drinking alcohol usually leads to drinking more alcohol and this is when we see the atrocious behaviour occurring.
Footballers are a snapshot of young males
We already know that in general, young males are high-risk takers and professional footballers are basically a snapshot of this group at an extreme level.
- Mistreating women
- Inappropriate use of technology
- Lack of respect
- Poor communicators
- Excessive use of alcohol and drugs
- Reckless driving
Many of the issues to do with young men are being highlighted by the NRL players. Hopefully, due to the negative (and rightly so) media attention the behaviour has been getting, we can see a shift in what is socially acceptable. Not just for NRL players, but for all men.
This isn’t every footballer, but I guarantee the ones that have been involved in these negative headlines have life-stories that look very similar to what is described above! While organisations like the NRL need to be commended for the educational programs that they have on offer to the players, the problems start even earlier. While each individual needs to be responsible for their own actions, if they haven’t been taught how to make the right decisions from an early age, we are fighting a losing battle by the time they hit the elite level.
What needs to change
- Stop lowering our academic and behavioural expectations of young athletes. A major study looking at College athletes in America found that less than two percent make it as a professional. This means we need to be more focused on producing good people, not just good athletes.
- Leaders involved in sport with young males needs to look at this as an opportunity to change the culture of not just football teams, but how young men behave and show respect. Arnold, 1979 wrote about how learning can occur in, through and about sport. However, like with anything we need to be explicit in what our learning intentions are and why.
- It’s time to show proper leadership and call out those that are on their way to making life-changing wrong decisions. This is why the development of the decision-making process is so important to work on from a young age.
- How are we teaching young people to develop their mental models and decision-making skills? In NSW, the PDHPE syllabus has direct links to teaching these skills, but are they being taught and modelled effectively? Are we giving them the knowledge to be able to make the right decision under pressure? I have previously written about how I am implementing the Personal and Social Responsibility model in my PE program here.
We’re never going to see a complete stop to these incidents occurring as young people are always going to make mistakes, but I think we still need to do more than just accept that it’s going to happen. As we’ve seen in the cases of Hayne, De Belin and Fainu, people can be seriously impacted by these poor judgement calls. For anyone in the position of leading young males, we have an obligation to ensure we set them up for future success.