Category Archives: Sport

Depression in sport

IAN THORPE IS THE LATEST SPORTS STAR TO SUFFER

Ian Thorpe ‘in rehab for depression’, says managerThe five-times Olympic swimming champion, Ian Thorpe, has been admitted to rehab after suffering from depression, local media said on Monday.

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The recent news about Ian Thorpe  would have been stunning ten years ago. Today, we are used to hearing about former Olympic champions, football greats, rugby legends and stars from many other sports who quickly fall from grace once their competitive career ends. Depression is prevalent among athletes across the whole spectrum of sports. Why? After all, these are people who have achieved more than most of us and enjoy the adulation of sports fans. Perhaps the very factors that drove their success also contribute towards their depression. One of the chapters of my book Making Sense of Sports examines the specific causes of depression in sport. I include it here: Sinking Under Pressure

SOCHI 2014 — A GROUNDBREAKING OLYMPICS?

Next month’s games will embarrass Russians … but may change them

Russia Figure Skating Cup Of Russia Ashley Wagner

Sochi. A few weeks ago, you’d have been forgiven for confusing it with a Japanese dish served with raw fish, or Nigella Lawson’s ex. Soon, Sochi will be one of the world’s news capitals. Sochi 2014 will be known in much the same way as Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972. The cities and the years denote the place and time of the Olympic games; but they are memorialized not for sport, but because they serve as emblems of social and political events. In Mexico, two African American athletes staged a silent protest against racism while on the victory rostrum. At the Munich Olympics the Palestinian splinter group Black September killed nine members of the Israeli Olympic team and killed two others to highlight how the political rights of displaced Palestinian Arabs were being disregarded. In both cases, the Olympics effectively served as a global showcase.

Sochi is the Russian port in the foothills of the Caucasus, where, on February 7, the 2014 Winter Olympics will open. At a cost of US$51 billion (£32 bn), it is the most expensive Olympics in history and offers an opportunity for Russia to publicize its status as a major, advanced, capitalist power, worthy of overseas investment. It will do more than that.

Last year, Russia introduced a law that criminalizes “homosexual propaganda,” making public displays that promote gay rights, including handholding, punishable by imprisonment. The law became an international cause célèbre. US president Barack Obama criticized the legislation on television hours before cancelling summit talks with Russia’s Premier Vladimir Putin. British actor Stephen Fry, who is openly gay, wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, urging a boycott of the games. Putin, according to Fry, “is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did to Jews.” The statement was criticised as ridiculous by several commentators. David Cameron acknowledged Fry’s concerns but insisted, “we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics.”

The games will definitely go ahead, though many athletes, gay and straight, will wrestle with a dilemma: by going to Sochi they may appear to endorse a Russian leadership that, far from safeguarding the interests of minorities, has passed laws that legitimize prejudices entrenched in the former communist bloc. The law is actually consistent with the retrogressive assault on civil society and political opposition since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. The jailing of the dissident female rock duo Pussy Riot was a warning shot and the release of the singers two months before the end of their sentence has been seen as a transparent attempt to take out some of the sting of world opinion prior to the Olympics. “This selective amnesty was not an act of humanism,” said band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. “It happened because Putin is afraid that Olympic Games in Sochi will be boycotted.”

The antigay law has Putin’s fingerprints all over it: he has consistently sought to promote a conservative ideology, advocating Russian nationalism and close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. It was entirely within his power to veto the controversial law. Instead he pandered to the homophobic and xenophobic elements of Russian society. But the costs will be punishing.

Putin knows he can’t mute the protests. The establishment of “public protest zones” to contain protesters will be ignored, just as the designated areas Beijing sectioned off to absorb protests against China’s human rights record and its policy on Tibet, went unused during the 2008 Olympics. Protests near the competition were quelled and activists either detained or deported. Putin has a reputation as a hard man, but he wouldn’t countenance such draconian measures, especially as he is forewarned. He recently declared gay people “can feel relaxed and comfortable” at the games as long as they “leave the children in peace”.

Obama has delivered him a slap in face by sending three openly gay members in the official US delegation. Several athletes have publicly stated their intention to flout the law. One of them is Ashley Wagner (pictured above), a 22-year-old figure skater who has murmured: “This is the opportunity for the Olympics to be ground-breaking.” She will no doubt incite Russian officials by wearing rainbow earrings and nails on the ice and, with others, is still thinking about how best to make her views known. “Too many people are quiet,” she reckons. Wagner could emerge as an improbable symbol of protest.

Billie Jean King, the first internationally famous female athlete to come out as gay in 1981 after her partner filed a palimony lawsuit against her, is in the American delegation and has alluded to Mexico 1968: “Sometimes, I think we need a John Carlos moment.” Carlos (below, on right) was one of the two black Americans who raised a defiant gloved fist and bowed his head as the Stars and Stripes was played; he was subsequently banned from sport, but history has transformed him into a champion of civil rights. Sochi may well produce a comparable event. But will its effects be as far-reaching?

Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1986 Olympics
For as long as anyone can remember the only certainty about inequality, exploitation and persecution, from despotism to slavery to apartheid, is that sport can either support them or challenge them. For those who piously insist sport and politics should be kept separate, the paradox is a torment: sport can be a potent political instrument, as the Gleneagles Agreement of 1971 shows. Signatories affirmed their opposition to apartheid by agreeing to end sporting contacts with South Africa. It became an effective adjunct to other forms of pressure to isolate South Africa and render it a pariah.

Sochi will hyphenate the introduction of Russia’s antigay laws with the football World Cup, which the nation will host in 2018. If the nation trembles with dread and staggers in astonishment at the strength of opposition to its regressive legislation, then it will surely ponder the even fiercer pushback in four years time.  We’re not going to witness a Tahrir Square-like rally or another Tiananmen Square. But there will be an event that causes wide-ranging changes that will either transfigure Russian society or lay bare its primitive repudiation of fairness, justice and egalitarianism.

images@elliscashmore

This has been published simultaneously by the LSE Politics and Policy blog

Gay footballers: Clubs and agents stop them coming-out*

MARKET CONSIDERATIONS KEEP CLOSET DOOR CLOSED

The recent announcement by German player Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay has once more raised the question of why more gay footballers do not feel confident enough to come out. I’ve conducted research on the subject which reveals what prohibits gay footballers from coming out

Robbie Rogers

When Marcus Urban revealed how, during his professional football career, he lived in fear of having his sexual orientation made public, it surprised no one. The once-promising East German youth international played in the 1980s, after all. Only one prominent athlete was known to be gay: Billie-Jean King’s sexuality became public in 1981 when she was sued by a former lover, who also worked as her secretary. Other gay athletes cautiously waited for the fallout from King’s revelation. Three decades later, there are openly gay athletes, not only in tennis, but in most major sports, even the traditionally macho sports like boxing and rugby. Yet Urban’s sport seems to have preserved its prejudices, as if in aspic. In the entire history of the sport, only two professional players have declared themselves to be gay during their competitive career. English player Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 after threats by a newspaper and, more recently, American Robbie Rogers (pictured above) retired, came out, then resumed playing, making him the only openly gay professional footballer (Anton Hysén, is also outspokenly gay, though he is a semi-professional in a minor Swedish league).

Is football out-of-step with other sports? Is its culture anachronistic – conspicuously old-fashioned? Or are there other, hidden factors that prohibit gay players from being honest and maintain the code of silence that proved such a torture not only to Urban, but to countless other gay footballers? There are gay footballers, probably hundreds if not thousands of them. Why do they not come out? The popular reason is: the hostile reaction of fans. The explanation may have been credible in Urban’s time, but are today’s fans ferociously opposed to gay players? No: in fact over 9 out of 10 fans insist homophobia has no place in modern football. The absence of gay professional players is becoming an embarrassment – it projects the misleading impression that football culture is mired in bigotry. This is not opinion; it is the conclusion of a study of 3500 fans I conducted with my colleague Jamie Cleland. While fans emphatically rejected that they harboured unfriendly feelings towards gay players, they understood the reasons why they were conventionally identified as the cause. They are easy targets who rarely have the opportunity to answer back And there is logic in what they argue: when Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz and Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas (below) came out, fans were indifferent, unconcerned about their private lives. Football fans would respond similarly. Because there are no openly gay players outside the USA’s – and I do not intend this to be insulting – somewhat insignificant Major League Soccer, we cannot test this argument.

Gareth Thomas Reads

More plausible explanations lie inside the football industry, where agents and clubs are always sensitive to the market. Agents earn their living from commissions derived from their clients’ (that is, players’) earnings. It is probable that they persuade gay clients not to gamble, at least until their careers are at an end. Clubs are conservative institutions and wish to preserve a status quo that has endured, in some cases, for over a century. “The club with a gay player” is probably not a label relished by football clubs. While officially clubs condemn homophobia and other types of discrimination, it is easy to imagine how they advise players to remain in the closet … at least until they move to another club, or retire completely! While this state of affairs persists, fans get the blame and the real culprits stay hidden. So the scarcity of gay players provides a spurious evidence of the presumed malevolence of fans. And fans can do nothing to destroy a myth that has been in football at least since Urban’s time.

* This is a translation of the author’s article, which was published in the January 2014 edition of the German cultural affairs magazine Kulturaustausch

@elliscashmore

More questions than answers …

WHY HAS TOM DALEY CAUSED SUCH A SPLASH?

Tom Daley

Q: So what’s all the fuss about Tom Daley, the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist?

A: He’s recently announced via a tweeted video that he’s gay.

Q: I thought we already knew that.

A: Well, there have been rumours circulating for a while and many people have, I think, assumed it. But Daley reckons the rumours have turned nasty, so he thought he’d go on record, so to speak.

Q: Will it hurt him?

A:  Not at all. His fans are not going to desert him. The advertisers who use him to endorse their products won’t drop him. And itv will appreciate the publicity bonus for the new series of Splash!

Q: So again, why the fuss?

A: Because there is still a degree of risk involved when an athlete, or, for that matter, actor, rock singer, politician or any person in the public eye comes out. They can’t be 100 per cent sure there is going to be approval. For instance, Britain’s first sex-change parliamentarian, the UKIP MEP Nikki Sinclaire has told how she was born a boy but had gender reassignment surgery on the NHS 18 years ago. This was big news and, let’s faces it, with some justification: it was unusual. But Sinclaire has not been on the end of a sharp backlash, has she?

Q: So you think the days of bigotry and homophobia are gone?

A: I didn’t say that. Enlightenment hasn’t spread to all parts of the world. In Qatar, where they are intending to play a football World Cup, homosexuality is still a punishable offence. In Russia, where there is going to be a winter Olympics, there are laws against which people have been protesting recently. And there are many other parts of the world mired in old-fashioned prejudices. I guess you have to believe that sport can be a force for good and work to change the mentality in such parts of the world.

Q: Football is the most popular sport in Britain and, indeed, the world. Yet, to my knowledge there is only one openly gay player and he’s playing in California in a league that doesn’t really have much impact. Right?

A: Yes, Robbie Rogers plays in Major League Soccer. Previously, he’d played for Leeds United. Now if he had chosen to come out while at Leeds, it would have been interesting to discover what the reaction would’ve been. My guess is that it would have encouraged some acerbic banter from opposing fans, but nothing too malicious. I’ve done research on this subject and over 90 per cent of football fans oppose homophobia and want to get rid of this reputation they have for being homophobes. The only way they can prove this is by not responding to a gay player in the way many people expect.

Q: You have to be kidding. You’re not seriously suggesting that a player in the Premier League or Championship could declare himself to be gay and not get what football fans call “stick,” are you?

A: Stick is typically bantering. OK it can be a bit caustic at times, but it is generally good-humoured and often quite witty. Fans visiting Brighton often chant, “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” or, “You’re standing up ‘cause you can’t sit down!” I don’t think these are malicious. And frankly I don’t think gay people are offended by this kind of ribaldry.

Q: One more question: would advertisers run a mile?

A: Quite the opposite: imagine the brand value of “the Premier League’s first gay player.” I would think any gay player who comes out as gay would have great marketing potential. Anyway we’ll find out soon. I predict a gay footballer in Britain will come out over the next couple of years. @elliscashmore

 

 

 

Sir Alex’s torment

“The big problem for me … he fell in love”

I remember getting a call in my hotel room in Manchester in February, 2003. It was from a radio station that wanted me to go on air to talk about David Beckham’s fraying relationship with the then manager of his club Manchester United, Alex Ferguson. “Why? What’s happened?” I asked. “Apparently Ferguson has cut Beckham’s eye.” It became known as the “flying boot incident.” Ferguson had vented his rage at Beckham after an FA Cup tie against Arsenal and, for some reason, kicked a stray boot, which flew through the air and collided with Beckham’s face. With his typical flair for dramatizing small incidents, Beckham wore his hair fastened back with an Alice band so that the wound – treated with steri-strips – was clearly visible. The professional relationship between the two men had probably been deteriorating for a while, but this was the first tangible evidence. I could only speculate on radio that this was probably the beginning of the end. Ferguson was irritated that the player had become a focus of more media attention than Manchester United. One can only imagine what torment Victoria caused him: it seems she was pulling her husband in many directions, all of them wrong from Ferguson’s perspective. If she wasn’t taking him to Lenny Kravitz’s birthday bash, she was displaying him on the front row of Giorgio Armani’s new launch or introducing him to her friends Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. For the hard-bitten Glaswegian, it must have been purgatory.

Ferguson’s new autobiography confirms what we all knew about his loss of patience with Beckham, though at the press conference to accompany the book’s publication, Ferguson let slip arguably an even more interesting insight: “The big problem for me [was] he fell in love with Victoria and that changed everything.” Read that again: the big problem for Ferguson was that Beckham fell in love with Victoria. This is exactly the kind of blunderingly insensitive remark that earns Ferguson respect from many people, who regard him as a kind of master of the dark arts of psychology. But is he?  He’s a good … no great football manager, perhaps the best there’s ever been, but he can also be boorish, crass and frequently shows no feeling or concern for others. How unfortunate for Ferguson that Beckham met a woman, fell in love, had children and became a celebrity athlete on par with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Beckham, writes Ferguson in the book, thought “he was bigger than Sir Alex Ferguson.” The very idea, eh? “The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts.” Football fans might argue that successful managers have to be authoritarian in the sense that they need obedience from players at the expense of personal freedoms. But this statement sounds like it comes from someone who can’t bear the prospect of one of his minions having the temerity to challenge him or even occupy other people’s attention. When Ferguson writes, “I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents.” You wonder what irked him more: the fact that Beckham was distracted by the lure of celebritydom, or that global interest in Posh and Becks, as the couple was then known, eclipsed interest in either the club or Ferguson. There was clearly a clash of egos at the club and, with no prospect of limiting Beckham’s celebrity ambitions or prising him away from Victoria, Ferguson’s only option was to release him. Beckham transferred to Real Madrid within months of the flying boot incident. Ferguson regards this as a “shame because he could still have been at Manchester United when I left. He would have been one of the greatest Man United legends.” We’re all sure he could too. But instead he became just a common or garden global icon.

 

In defence of Gordon Taylor

I’m not an admirer of Gordon Taylor, but I’ll defend his right to spend his £1 million yearly salary however he chooses. The papers are roundly condemning him for his gambling habit. The chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) – the players’ union – has warned his members about the dangers of gambling and has even used the term “zero tolerance” to deter his members from betting on matches. Certainly, there are strict rules about players betting on games in which they are involved. This is no more than common sense.

Taylor has also stated: “Gambling is possibly the biggest danger facing our members.” Even allowing for a measure of exaggeration, there is nothing inconsistent about this statement. Taylor may truly believe gambling does pose dangers for young men who find themselves in positions where they command the adulation of fans and the kind of money they could barely have dreamt of.

Taylor is acting responsibly if he advises his members to guard against gambling irresponsibly. But, if he enjoys a bet himself, so what? He earns the kind of money that allows him to place bets of £25,000 a pop without any undue discomfort. And if he ran up debts of £100,000, as one newspaper reports, so what? This is like someone who earns £50,000 a year owing £5,000 – a considerable chunk of change, but not ruinous.

Taylor’s advice to players on gambling has credibility: he is someone who obviously likes a bet and presumably enjoys the thrill or frisson that’s peculiar to gambling. So when he counsels players about the subject, his advice has substance because he knows about the attractions of gambling. Were the advice to come from a goody-goody who was sternly opposed to gambling, players would pay it no heed.

Who has the right to tell Taylor how to spend his money? He is not a gambling addict – in fact, there is no such thing: the medical profession abetted by uncritical social scientists has perpetrated this myth. Same goes for “problem gambler”: this is another fiction. There may be gamblers who have problems, but that is another phenomenon. And in any case, Taylor’s only problem at the moment is a pious media seemingly hell-bent on destroying him.

Were it discovered he drove an Aston Martin One-77 at just under a million quid, would he be disqualified from issuing guidance on expensive cars? Players favour Bentleys and Lamborghinis, as we know.

I have not agreed with many of Taylor’s decisions in the past and have criticised him for his stance on other issues, but, on this occasion, I am with him: he is perfectly entitled to spend his money however he chooses. Gambling is legal in the UK. It is not hypocritical for him to talk on the subject and offer advice to his members.

Football fans are not homophobic

The Crown Prosecution Service’s new initiative aimed to tackle, among other things, homophobia in football is badly conceived, poorly planned and misdirected. “As well as tackling violence, disorder and criminal damage, we will deal robustly with offences of racist and homophobic and discriminatory chanting and abuse and other types of hate crime,” says the CPS

Most of these are already punishable offences, though the issue of “homophobic” chanting and abuse is new. With my colleague Jamie Cleland, I’ve conducted research on the supposed homophobia among football fans: contrary to popular wisdom, a huge majority of fans oppose homophobia and think it has no place in football. In fact, most fans welcome the day a professional footballer will have the confidence to come out in Britain. There is only one pro player who is openly gay and he plays in America’s Major League Soccer.

Just under 10 per cent of fans questioned in the survey of 3500 fans expressed hostility to homosexuality and resented any liberalisation in attitudes towards gay players witnessed in other sports.

Nearly a quarter of all people playing, coaching or refereeing professional football personally know a gay player. This suggests that gay players are known inside the football industry, but are afraid to come out. Why? If it’s because of the possible reaction of crowds, they have nothing to fear. Gareth Thomas, a former Wales rugby union captain who later switched to rugby league, declared he was gay while still at the peak of his professional career. In only one instance did fans react with hostility; for the most part he was not subject to homophobic abuse.

Football fans barrack all players and, it’s true, they often use language that qualifies as homophobic. But in the occasionally baffling logic of football fans, this does not mean they hate, dislike or disapprove of gay players. It is, in the fan’s jargon, “stick” —  sharp but playful remarks designed to put opposing players off their game. There is, for sure, homophobia in football, but it lies in boardrooms and in the offices of football agents. Gay players are being persuaded that it’s in their best interests not to reveal their sexual preferences while they are still playing football professionally. Football clubs may fear the brand implications of being known as the first club in the English or Scottish leagues to have an openly gay player. Agents are no doubt wary of the effects on sponsorship deals – remember agents earn their commission on players’ earnings. The publicist Max Clifford, who is rumoured to have been consulted by at least three gay professional footballers, has revealed that he has advised footballers not to come out because the sport is “steeped in homophobia”.

Of course, it’s much easier to blame fans and introduce tough measures to silence them. Football will soon follow other professional sports and see some of its top players come out: in recent years, rugby union, hurling and tennis have seen star players reveal that they are gay while at the height of their careers.  It is not fans who are stifling them. The taboo surrounding gay players in football is a myth.

Should we boycott next year’s Winter Olympics?

Stephen Fry up

Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected actor Stephen Fry’s request to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics in protest at Russia’s homophobic laws.

Vladimir Putin’s new legislation allows for the imposition of heavy fines for anyone providing information about homosexuality to people under the age of eighteen. The Russian city Sochi hosts the games.  Athletes have been warned they’ll be penalized if they “propagandise” on the issue.  The probability is that there will be no boycott and that the controversy will resurface again as we approach the 2018 football World Cup, which will be held in Russia.  By then it’s probable there will be several openly gay footballers.

As with any boycott, there is a balance of interests.  Athletes aiming to compete at next year’s Games will be training hard and dedicating themselves to winning a medal.  Clearly, none of them – straight or gay – would want to sacrifice their chances.  Any protest over political, social or moral issues risks casualties of this kind. Individuals have their own interests at heart and there is nothing wrong with this.

On the other side of the balance sheet are collective issues, in this case one concerning fundamental human rights.  Gay people are currently stigmatized in Russia.  Like all international sports tournaments, the Winter Olympics presents an almost natural forum for events far removed from sport.

Some people, like Cameron, prioritize individuals’ interests over all others.  He believes it would be wrong to prevent athletes competing in what will probably be their career-high tournament. Fry’s call for a boycott suggests he thinks, if Russia is allowed to proceed in an uninhibited way, the effect will be to condone its attitude towards gay people.

So who is right? The first lesson history teaches us is that sporting protests do work: they force issues often involving prejudice and inequality to the attention of the world and concentrate pressure on offending nations to reconsider their policies, laws and sometimes ideology.

The Gleneagles Agreement of 1977 was instrumental in the eventual fall of South African apartheid in 1990: it effectively ostracized South Africa by prohibiting sporting contacts.

Boycotts usually make headlines and attract the rhetoric of interested parties who talk regretfully about how unfortunate is it that sport and politics have become mixed-up.  In fact, sports and politics are not just mixed-up, but entwined so closely that they will never be separated: sport is an effective vehicle for promoting or publicizing causes, principles and aims, aswell as full-blown ideologies. Presumably, this was on the minds of Black September when it planned what turned into a bloodbath. The group’s demands for the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners were not met, precipitating a sequence of killing at the Munich Olympics of 1972. The massacre was horrific and condemned almost universally, but it made the condition of Palestinians known to the world.

Earlier at the 1968 Olympics, there had been an iconic moment when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black berets and gloves and bowed their heads on the victory rostrum while the US national anthem played. At the time they were decried as unpatriotic and hounded out of sport.  Now they are revered as the men who made America’s prejudice against black people known to the world and in their own way made their imprint on history.

There are those who will argue that we could find fault with the host of practically any major sports competition.  Remember, Britain, which held last year’s Olympics, is not without critics. So when we consider protests, we have to think in terms of a political or moral triage, assigning degrees of urgency to issues, some of which demand more immediate attention than others.  The gay issue in Russia does, in my opinion, require attention.  Gay people are, we understand, habitually persecuted in a nation with a population of 143 million, and where the attitude towards homosexuality is basically the result of a hangover from the Soviet Union combined with Putin’s crass and populist ideology.  I respect the rights of the athletes who will defend their freedom to choose whether or not to attend and compete in the games.  But they should ask themselves whether they would be complicit in perpetuating a social and political arrangement that is morally repugnant.