Why the opening up of athletes is so important

Just yesterday on BBC ‘Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad’ was aired, the former England footballer and now pundit opened up about family life and coming to terms with his wife’s  death. In 2015 he lost his wife, Rebecca Ellison to breast cancer. The trailer which was released on the weekend before immediately began trending. Cancer is something that resonates with everyone, everyone has somehow been affected whether it be themselves, a friend, a family member or even within 1-2 degrees of separation.

Within every single outlet that shared the trailer, countless people were sharing their stories and opening up thousands of others. This being a great thing. Opening up, thanking and even offering advice through Twitter mentions and Facebook comments truly shows the digital age we’re in. Yet at the same time shows that no matter who you are or your situation there is some humanity on social media.

Throughout the programme Rio puts himself out there, you see a side that is rarely seen with sporting persons. Sure you have seen footballers or many a sportsperson cry while on pitch/court/podium. These being due to feelings of happiness, extreme disappointment or physical pain. But never bereavement, stress or grief. Rio as a high profile ex-footballer and tv pundit has hopefully started paving a road to openness for people who are in similar situations or hold similar feelings, male or female. In sport especially mental health and wellbeing is an area that affects many athletes. A study conducted in 2015 in the United States found from a cross sectional survey that nearly 1 out of 4 student athletes suffer from relevant levels of depressive symptoms (Wolanin et al, 2015). The research is lacking specifically in this area but it is stated that student athletes are less likely to reach out due to the fact that they maybe showing weakness. This stemming from the base that sport is a masculine domain and showing ‘feminine’ attributes/characteristics is discounted. However the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) in the past year has released and given information to US colleges as to how to help and address mental health concerns. More information here. Yet there is much more room for improvement within institutions and sporting academies. An example to follow would be the University of Michigan’s Athletes Connected. Here is a great article on the institutions approach.

But of course there are the downsides and those people that think money will be the answer.  Some comments read by him somehow having his millions he really should ‘Be okay.’ Or people didn’t think that somehow since he did have money that the grief and troubles would pass through since he would be able to pay for a therapist to talk to. It is a long process and Rio is beginning to take active steps to face his grief head on. And throughout the hourlong programme his concern very much lies within his children’s welfare. Especially the boys as they are the more difficult to get through to when talking about their late mother. Even within the research of this post, in relation to student athletes mental health comments were stating along the lines of ‘free tuition and the potential to take their careers pro and earn millions. Oh how terrible for them.’ These thoughts and ideas being quite frankly sickening.

The importance of a sports person being so open to millions of people is I hope is a step in the right direction for how people and athletes are able to speak about their feelings.  It was stated that men are half as likely to seek counselling in the UK than women. Men in the UK being three times more likely to commit suicide than women (ONS, 2016). Not even that far into the programme, Rio states that he now understands the place that people come from and how low they feel when thinking of suicide.

This isn’t the first time in the past year we have seen footballers open up to the public. It was last year when former footballer, Andy Woodward decided to waive his anonymity and come forward as a victim of sexual abuse. This bravery to come forward by him caused a domino with numerous other players and now more than 240 clubs (professional & amateur) are involved in the scandal. This bringing justice and hopefully some peace to those who have been affected for so many years. It only takes one person to start a movement and I hope that Rio’s action does the same.



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