Race, education & retirement in professional football transcript

HB: This week I'm speaking to Dr Paul Ian Campbell, lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leicester. Pauls research focuses on race, community and identity in local and professional football.  His first book, “Football, ethnicity and community” won the British Sociological Associations Philip Abrams prize in 2017. We are here to discuss his recent research on the experiences of retiring from professional football and this experience plays out in different ways for black players.  This has been published earlier this year in his new book, education, retirement and career transitions for black ex-professional footballers: from being idolized to stacking shelves.  So hello Paul, thank you for speaking to us today and welcome to the Emerald Podcast.

PC: Hi Helen and thanks for inviting me

HB: So tell us a bit more about the premise of your book. How did you get the idea and why have you framed it in this way?

PC: Growing up I played a lot of sports and a lot of my friends had gone on to have careers in the professional game. Round about 10 years ago a lot of them started to come to the end of their careers and were really facing a number of issues in what happens next and how do they move from being footballers into mainstream careers. I was getting a number of phone calls from friends who are asking me advice and really kind of looking for some help on how to move forward and this became more and more … just kept happening more and more. And these very different men but were all kind displaying very similar issues and problems and concerns - having issues around how do I go about doing interviews, how do they even try to find a job, what kinds of jobs can they go into. And that kind of really was the first moment that I realized that there was something happening here that this wasn't just kind of individual this was something that was happening to a lot of different people whose only similarity was that they had a career in football.

So really that kind of thinking about where they were now and trying to kind of map how they got to this point so looking at the issues they had around qualifications or lack of qualifications, why they hadn't upskilled during their careers and then the issues that they were facing post career really kind of set up the premise of the book - which looks at their experiences as school boys, their experiences as professionals, and their experiences in retirement. Once I got this idea - you start to do the kind of reading around the area, the literature and trying to find out what had been written and where your research might sit.

And in that reading what came out, what was striking was that most of the research that had been done had really being done through a psychological lens. Now psychology is really helpful but it also has some problems. See one of the problems is that it kind of individualizes the problem, localizes it to something, to an issue that the individual has – maybe they have a particularly overinflated athletic identity, or they have an addictive personality. This kind of didn't fit with the narratives of the people that I'd spoken to - so really what I wanted to do was look at the ways in which being a footballer, being immersed within that culture from a young adolescent through to adult life, how would being in the industry, in that culture, in those routines how would that contributed to the fact- and in producing a work force that typically struggle to move into other careers once this their first sporting career had ended.

HB: As your book points out, over 30 % of professional footballers are black but at the coaching and senior manager level this figure is only about 1 percent, and you know, doing the maths and putting that into actual numbers this means that there are around 1200 professional football players in England in the game at the moment and only around 23 black coaches and senior managers so, you know, that gap is really stark. Raheem Stirling touched on this recently pointing to, to Sol Campbells management career as an example and underscoring the role that having the right network plays in establishing a management career. So what did your research find out about the role of social networks and how these contribute to this underrepresentation we see at the management level?

PC: In terms of players and the opportunities that they got for going into management social networks were arguably the most determining factor in, in in these opportunities. What we kind of mean by social networks is generally the kind of friendships and the connections that you established while playing with other players and other coaches as such. And these are significant for getting into coaching work so it plays out in a number of ways: so one of the first benefits being in the right network enables people to have access to is they get advance warnings of jobs within that network, people tell them and this might happen even before the current managers lost his job. So they get advanced warnings and can start to contact the right people and make their case. In addition these networks can vouch for their candidacies so being in the wide network you might know somebody who's a good friend of the chairman and they can sort of convinced the chairman to take a chance on this person or they can even just introduce them to various important people, various agents, various coaches or executives prepped and prewarned for these posts. And we saw this, there was an interview for example not long ago with Harry Redknapp talking about how he had assisted in helping Frank Lampard get an interview for the Derby job. Redknapp details how he was good friends with the Darby chairman and through the kind of trust that he had built and the chairman took Harry Redknapp at his word now and decided to give Frank an interview where he hadn't originally planned to and then once Frank had the interview he convinced the manager - the chairman that he was the person for the job. But what we also found was that these networks were racialized and what we mean by this is that the friendship groups that players built generally consisted of people from different backgrounds but the close networks, these more intimate social networks tended to be forged around markers of race. Because a lot of black managers - or there's a shortage of black managers - that actually these black social networks aren't very advantageous for work opportunities.

The third component to social networks was that we found that these social networks that tended to include managers or coaches within them, in effect players that befriended managers and coaches, those were the most advantageous types of networks for new job opportunities. Players who befriend the manager will work particularly hard at trying at trying to curry favour, so they'll get in early and maybe sit in the manager's office talking tactics or they'll be on the manager's table during travel to away games or on the managers table at quiz nights but what was really interesting here is that the players described that often this meant behaving in certain pastimes or activities which they weren't comfortable doing as black players. These managers networks were also often whitened. They also, within these networks, they would often have to put up with things like racialized humour. So what we see then is the ways in which networks work are really in in in 3 ways - they're important for providing pre-warning for jobs and having people vouch for you, they were also often around markers of race and they also required players, especially black players if they wanted to access these more advantageous networks, to have to put up with activities or humour or cultural practices that were comfortable to them as black players. So what these things did is they came together to mean that the kind of networks the black players established whilst they were playing weren't as useful as far as those which their white peers often have access.

HB: The role of the coaches and manages seems really key and what struck me reading your book was there seem to be some really harsh, quite harsh approaches to managing young people. What was the thinking behind this approach in the eighties and nineties and what part does that play?

PC: What we found was this was especially prevalent in the participants experiences as schoolboy footballers. So what we found was that while at the level of governance football during the 80's and 90's – and currently - were very pro education. The culture within the clubs and the training ground was very anti education. It was very working class and it was very masculine and it placed education as deviant. Importantly, within this, to progress from being a schoolboy player to a youth player and then a youth team player into a professional, one of the key qualities that coaches looked for in a player was there willingness to sacrifice all other activities for football and one this was one of the most key dimensions and typically this meant sacrificing going out with your friends, sacrificing girlfriend - girlfriends were especially seen as problematic - the players needed a kind of laser-eyed focus on being, becoming a professional. And within this, within the things that they're expected to sacrifice education was also seen as one of numerous things which players had to forgo or that football should prioritize.

HB: I guess that leaves players particularly ill-equipped to career a transition after football - if education is seen as such a deviant thing. You know, your book also talks about how stereotypes around, around race and black people show up in in the education system itself. This idea of black people as naturally athletic and suited to physical pursuits - did you see that come out in the participants interviews?

PC: So really what we see is that this is kind of two processes working especially during the phase where they were school children. So the first phase which we alluded to in the previous question was that these kinds of anti-education attitudes that were prevalent within the professional game were impacting on the young school children's choices before they'd even got into the game. So it meant that they were prioritizing sport over education at a crucial stage in their educational development. The second phase of this was that as working class boys typically they didn't enjoy school, it wasn't something that was a priority in their kind of ideas of how they saw their identities around masculinity - but this was accentuated because not only were these working class but they were also working class black young men and so in school what happened meant that they were often faced with an education system that was hostile to their racial identity. They received very little positive affirmation from their teachers, so were often singled out and treated extremely harshly despite often being very bright. So they would often, teachers would often have some stereotypical ideas about black, young black man as needing a particularly firm hand, as needing particularly harsh discipline to manage them so that meant that they their entire kind of school careers they were experiencing a racial inequality and hostility. Moreover they were seldom directed to academic pursuits because a lot of the perception of young black youths was that they were more suited to sport or to manual labour so teachers they found would often celebrate and direct them towards PE or athletics or football and also kind of manual apprenticeships and seldom would recognize their or pay the same amount of attention to their academic pursuits. So this combination of really a kind of harsh experience in school directed at their racialized identities combined with spending a lot of time in the in the footballing world which placed a low capital on education but gave them more positive affirmation for their sporting attributes came together to really kind of shape these young men's ideas the education having very little value or being something that was naturally welcoming and football being where all their energies should lie.

HB: I guess this all combines to be a bit of a perfect storm really at the stage where professional footballers are retiring and looking at the next thing they are going to do. What did the participants in your study find? How were their experiences of retirement?

PC: All of them described retirement as the hardest part, the hardest thing that they had ever gone through. And so there was a whole series of, a whole combination of things happening – they were mourning the sudden loss of their athletic identities, they were struggling financially, a lot of their friendship circles were built around being a professional footballer so they found themselves isolated and then they also had the challenges of moving from usually being the main breadwinner in the family and being able to provide a lifestyle for their partners and for their children to being in a situation where they could no longer fulfil that role in the same way. So this was impacting on their financial clout, on their identities and for some of them even their purpose for being. So this was a really traumatic episode. And then this was complicated by them having to very quickly find alternative work in completely alien career and often with very few kind of skills to take into that work force.

HB: I mean you've also mentioned previously this kind of masculine environment in professional football and this must have really affected their masculine identities.

PC: Yes for sure and I'm one of the testimonies from one of the participants speaks of how he felt, he felt like he was failing as a father and as a man and so this is a really crucial juncture - this is also combined to a wider, a wider sort of period where men generally have high levels of emotional and psychological trauma, higher rates of suicide – so this is a particularly sense-  so between kind of 35 to 45 is a particularly crucial and sensitive juncture in the male experience in the U. K.. Combined with the fact that black men have higher rates of suicide and also over the last - since 2007 I think -over the last 13 years that nearly one in ten ex-professional footballers commit suicide or it counts for one in 10 of the deaths of footballers. We see that this is a really kind of crucial moment just being a man in the UK and being a black man in U. K. and being a sports person in the UK. So this comes together to create a really kind of precarious time and period which is… is extremely traumatic and potentially quite scary for these men.

HB: How did the participants feel about taking part in the study? Did it change anything for them?

PC: Interestingly, the whole experience for them and also for me as… as the researcher was an extremely kind of emotional experience. Professional football is characterized by… certainly they like to see themselves as mens men. These are the apex of desirability, of masculinity, of financial clout, these are the men that men want to be. And couched within this kind of culture is a certain stoicism whereby emotional and mental ill health are rather taboo. Put simply you don't do emotional talk in professional football. So for a number of these participants, some of which I'd known for three, four decades, certainly this was the first time the we had spoken about these kinds of things but more importantly is the first time they had spoken openly about these kinds of emotional trauma. So for them, to some this was this was kind of a form of therapy but importantly it was also something on which they'd never shared with anybody so what was really quite intimate is these were things which some players admitted that they'd never even shared with their wives or their partners. So this was a really kind of powerful and important tool and something that really they all felt they needed to do but hadn't felt that they could. So this was something that was really quite, quite emotional for all involved.

HB: Did any of the participants ever go and seek mental health support at any stage?

PC: None that admitted they had and in fact to the contrary most had said that this was the first time that they had spoken about their feelings so openly and candidly and they're were often tears on both parts, you know this was really kind of the first time that they – and we – had engaged in any kind of intimate talk.

HB: did it change how you felt about your football career and experiences?

PC: yeah, so it was interesting and I thought much about this whilst doing the projects and certainly afterwards. And it was quite emotionally traumatic experience for myself because a lot of the things that happened - and I didn't play anywhere near as long as my participants, I was released as a teenager - but even in that I'd repressed a lot of the kind of emotional trauma that had happened and to the point where thinking through my own experiences and where my own autoethnography could contribute to the book meant so I had to think about - so for example the day that I was released and oddly I couldn't remember. I could remember everything happen- leading up to it but I couldn't remember the conversation. I remember the office and the manages and kind of being told, but I couldn't actually remember the conversation and I couldn't really remember the drive home. It had clearly been something that had been quite traumatic and something which I hadn't actually kind of reflected upon so this kind of really meant that I had to revisit some of, some really quite difficult moments in my own life and experience to that point. And I think that has a really kind of border point soul for academics who are researching areas that are close to them, in effect insider research because we often think about how this impacts on the narratives that we produce, the ethical concerns around safeguarding and protecting our participants. The last person we think about is often the kind of longer term impacts on the actual researchers and I think much more consideration needs to be given to that to manage yourself after this because, you know, I would I would say it took me a good six months to really be comfortable and even reading the book now, there are moments where I can relate so much to what they were saying that even now I kind of get quite emotional in some of the extracts and some of the excerpts.

HB: did the participants - working through that transition and that same kind of experience - how long did it take, how long did it take them to process that and to settle into new careers and new directions?

PC: It varied. What we found this wasn't a transition that happened overnight what players would often do is they would initially when they came out of football they would gravitate to playing semi-professional football which is which is playing for a host of clubs below the professional level where you train a couple of evenings and play on a Saturday. So that would not only gives them a source of income but it would also be a substitute – while they weren't professional footballers, in the towns in which those clubs are couched they still have a similar experience in that they might still be signing autographs, or still have adulation and they'll still be surrounded by players and within a culture which is similar to what they've come out from.

However these are often kind of short lived usually because after 10- 15 years playing football, there's this level of body deterioration which means they might be able to play this semi-professional football for a couple of years and then they move into jobs which are a natural fit i.e. things like being a personal training but again either body deterioration, injuries mean they can't do that for too long or the money that they earn from doing something like personal training is so far away from what they would earn as professional footballers that they gravitate to usually manual based or sales based more mainstream careers.

But that adjustment then requires them having to kind of learn to adjust to working a 9 to 5 workday which is very different to maybe the 3 hours that they would train as professional footballers. So for many of them this process is still ongoing - if I had to put a timeline on it I would say the transition usually takes somewhere between 5 to 10 years

HB: that is a very long time. It really struck me reading your book that the people enter the world of professional football really young, start playing at a very young age at the schoolboy level - the structure that provides to their world, losing that when they retire, that structure that they've had in place since such a young age must be a real, a real shock to the system. How did that come up in your research?

PC: So yes this was part of what we might describe as a package of traumas that that players faced and so what we found was is that whilst they were players, they were really kind of cocooned within a series of support structures which consisted of their agent, which consisted of their union and a player liaison officer. What these people, what these support mechanisms provide is basically a whole host of provisions - even things such as simple as registering their children at schools or finding a house or contract negotiations or dealing with all the kinds of things that might go around moving from one club to another. So these networks meant that all the players had to concentrate on was playing football. But by the same token it also meant that they didn't develop any of that independency or initiative skills that other people develop as they go through from, as you say, from childhood through to sort of adulthood. So what this means is when they come out of the game that they have to adjust not only with all these kinds of impacts on their masculinity, on their identity but they are having to learn the skills - things like having to work out how do you register, as I say, for the doctors or the dentists? How do you go about finding a new job? So one of the problems that we found was is their union provided them with lots of support and packages that would help them in the post career period but because they hadn't had any skills of independency or locating them. it meant that they were completely unaware of them and they didn't have the skills to locate them, they didn't have the skills to sort of go through what are often counterintuitive websites to find and access these provisions. They'd moved from being in a career where everything was provided for them to overnight being in a situation where they had to seek out and identify the kinds of things that they needed to satisfy the kinds of issues that they were facing.

HB: So, you know, what needs to change? what can people in the professional game do to recognize the story is different for black players looking at coaching careers and coming out into retirement?

PC: I think we are still at square one. And square one is really recognizing that people of different racial backgrounds have a very different experience of the game and have a very different experience of opportunities in the post career. And this might sound quite obvious but there is still significant debate over whether or not race is even a factor and that racism is a legitimate explanation for the differences that we see in coaching in opportunities for management in the kinds of post career challenges the players face. And really it's only once it is unanimously accepted from the governance to the coaches to the players, to all the industries around football, the media, once we kind of accept that racism or race is a determining proxy for difference then we can begin to do something about it.

But I'm not convinced as yet the we've even got a uniform - we understand that race - for example football understands that racial hostility is wrong, there is no debates around that - so for example their response to the black lives matter and to George Floyd tragic murder - but there isn't the consensus of what we might call systemic institutional racism and the ways in which some people careers are checked because of their racial identity or checked because the fact is that coalesce around their racial identity

HB: I think a lot of what you've spoken about just now seems to exist and is replicated in many professional industries. How does your work speak to the kinds of inequalities we see people responding to right now with black lives matter?

PC: So what we see is that the story for black players in football is different from, from their white peers and this is similar to what's happening in all organizations and all industries and in the black experience more broadly. So what we see is this general characteristic of the black experience in employment - is in the contemporary period black employees can access almost all industries however what we see is that even though we see black access we see almost entire black invisibility when it comes to the level of management. They experience what we might call raced glass ceilings and so what we see is what Freedman at LSE describes as the difference between getting into the career and getting on in the career. And so what we see is that not only are there uneven levels of access between black people in the U. K. in employment and they're white peers, but this racial inequality is often dismissed, it's overlooked or it's completely rejected. And so this injustice combined with this inability to even recognize this injustice is characteristic of the black experience in wider life but importantly in football. We see this as I said previously about - we still have a debate over whether or not race is a factor or a legitimate explanation for inequality. So what we see is life in professional football is very different for people of colour than it is for their white peers. And it really is this kind of injustice which is characteristic and speaks to the wider inequalities and the wider demands of movements like black lives matter. Black lives Matter is not solely – it might initially have been in response to that really tragic overt display if racism, but this is really about a) raising these kinds of wider systemic inequalities and really trying to challenge them and so what we see is that's particularly why people like Raheem Stirling, that these causes are resonating with these issues are being raised by these players.

HB: We've also seen black football players express concern about returning to play nights and we know that covid-19 has had a massively disproportionate effect on black people. How are black football players potentially being disproportionately affected by covid-19?

PC: That's a really interesting question because again I think the theme of this conversation is that - what we found is that there's no inherent biological differences or significant biological differences between communities of colour and white communities. What we see is that a whole set of experiences around ethnic communities, some minority ethnic communities, means that they're more at risk from negative effects of covid i.e. being clustered in certain types of work, frontline services and so that means that they have a higher exposure to covid or that because they're clustered in challenging socio economic conditions that that impacts on health, like higher rights diabetes, which again makes them more prone to experiencing negative or disproportionately negative impacts of covid than maybe there white peers. 

So that being said, for black supporters everything so far suggests that they are not disproportionately impacted by covid than their white peers because as black footballers they are supremely fit, they have extremely healthy diets they tend to be able to mitigate – in effect they are young, they are fit, they are healthy and everything so far suggests that that means that they're not especially at risk from covid. What is really important is that while these individuals might not at risk from covid, they are directly wired into the communities that are especially if they're young professional footballer. So if they're young professional football they might be living at home, or they might with the loosening of restrictions they can come more in contact with their families and to people around them who are directly at risk of covid because of the reasons outlined at the start. To put it in a nutshell, while black footballers might not be necessarily at a higher risk of being adversely impacted by covid they don't exist in the social vacuum. They are part of communities that are. So we kind of need a broader way of thinking players – it's not just the players, it's their contact with the families and contact with the communities that are those that are more directly at risk of having a much more negative impact of culture.

HB: And that comes right back full circle to your first point about why you framed the research in this way, about needing to step back and not take this individualised approach, but look at systems and structures that create the conditions for these disproportionate effects, I think that's a really key thing about your research. So where would you like to go next you know, what's missing from your research?

PC: That's a great question and I think the glaring omission from this discussion is the experience of professional women. And professional women particularly black, but professional women and athletes and footballers of colour. Looking at again their experiences, and the kinds of impacts of their kind of transitions into and out of professionalised sport. The other area which I'd really like to find out more about is thinking about footballers, this work even though it tries not to individualize black footballers, it does individualized black footballers because it just looks at them, and I think a more holistic study which looks at the impact of this journey on their family. And on their parents because this whole transition, and the whole experience of being an athlete, is a shared experience. So it was schoolboys and schoolgirls; how do the things that we find, how is that experienced by their family? Is it something that's in tension with their family? Were their family supportive of their children's decisions, a kind of laser focus on football at expense of everything else? Or was this something which, as I say, was this an issue of dispute? How does the kind of transition and this clear sort of depression that the players go through and this clear sort of psychological trauma? Because we know that professional footballers at an extremely high percentage are divorced within the first few years of retirement from the game. So what we see is that this clearly has a significant impact. And also black footballers, because what we found in the study was that the footballers are unable to access the provisions provided by the union for support, or guidance, or help to go into alternative careers. They often rely on their family, their close friends, and their partners and spouses for advice, so the family unit becomes really, really….is a really important part of the story but is often, well as far as I know currently, is one that has remained completely silent and absent from the literature on, kind of, professional sport, race and career transition.

HB: Like you said footballers don't exist in a vacuum

PC: Exactly

HB: Well thank-you very much Paul for coming on the show today for a really engaging and eye-opening conversation.

PC: No, thank-you for having me. 

HB: If you are interested in learning more about Paul's research there's a link to Paul's book in the show notes.

Next week my colleague Daniel Ridge will be speaking to professor Ashraf Salama head of the department of architecture at Strathclyde on architecture and urban design in the post-COIVD-19 city, join us then and thank-you for listening.