When discussing a topic such as a sport’s person mental health, it’s really easy to assume that the likes of Piers Morgan are the exceptions rather than the rule. Yet it doesn’t take much research to discover that that is definitely not the case. When I tweeted recently that it was possible that Gini Wijnaldum both wanted to get one last big contract that he feels he deserves and that he didn’t like the abuse he received from some Liverpool supporters, I had numerous replies from people telling me I was wrong. There were obviously countless people in the room during our former number five’s discussions with his agent, given the number of people that told me it was about nothing more than him wanting more money. Sufficed to say, there are a wealth of people who aren’t happy about the Netherlands international calling out supporters for effectively trolling players online. I’m quite sure that Wijnaldum would have stayed at Anfield had the Reds offered him an acceptable contract amount, but that doesn’t mean that what he said about abusive ‘fans’ isn’t relevant and valid at a time when mental health should be highly valued.
Wijnaldum, a class act until the day he left #LFC, was right to shame the trolls. The argument that players should be able to “take it” or that it “comes with the territory” is just grim. And he certainly wasn’t claiming that online abuse was why he left.
— Thepresstalk (@thepress_talk) July 26, 2021
Wijnaldum was quick to draw a distinction between people in the ground and people operating online, but I’m not sure that he should have. I’ve written on here before about how I’ve confronted people on the Kop for actively and incessantly slagging off Jordan Henderson, shouting abuse at him and making sarcastic comments during matches. We’d all love to imagine that it’s only online that people act the goat, but that’s certainly not true. There is something about footballers that makes people feel as though they can scream and shout abuse at them and not have to face any consequences. The calls to force social media companies to get photo identification from people in order to open up an account presupposes that abusers dish out their comments anonymously, but we know from the number of people that lose their jobs or end up in court that that’s simply not the case. I’ve also had to confront people at Anfield making racist comments in the past, so the notion that it’s somehow some sort of secret is clearly nonsensical. Should players be expected to act like robots, shut up and take the abuse?
Footballers Are Human Beings
Perhaps it’s because they’re paid so much money. Maybe it’s to do with them living in gorgeous houses that are separate from their communities. It’s possible that it’s just down to them doing something that most people think that they can do to at least a minor level. Whatever the reasoning, there’s an extant to which some people think that footballers are akin to robots. If a player’s level drops, there’s no conversation around what they’ve had to put their bodies through in recent times or what is happening in their personal life, with people instead jumping to the idea that they’re not good enough. The proliferation of social media means that people no longer have to keep their thoughts on that player to themselves, instead being able to turn online and let everyone know what they think about the player in question. More often than not, users will even tag the player in their tweets or Instagram posts, being quick to get their insults in as best they can. What would those same people do, I wonder, if they were forced to endure the sort of abuse that footballers get on an almost daily basis?
In the same way that athletes have natural physical ability that is nurtured, so too are they mentally tough. But just as they can be physically injured, they can also be mentally derailed.
It’s not weakness in either case; it’s just being human.
— Kelly Cates (@KellyCates) July 27, 2021
Jamie Carragher’s response to Gini Wijnaldum’s revelations about the abuse he received from some sections of the Liverpool fanbase was to suggest that the Dutchman should simply ignore it. “Turn off your notifications,” he said, “and if it’s bothering you that much delete the app!” Let’s ignore the fact that Jamie Carragher was so bothered by abuse he was given that he spat in a young girl’s face and question why it is that the answer given to people tired of receiving abuse is that they should remove themselves from the situation rather than have the abusers dealt with. Why is it that footballers are expected to be able to raise themselves above receiving the sort of messages that would have someone put in prison if they said them in real life? There’s no question that Gini Wijnaldum wanted more money. I’m quite sure that his feeling undervalued was behind his decision to leave Liverpool for Paris Saint Germain. Yet at the same time I also think that the Dutch player was using the opportunity to call people out for behaving in a manner that is unacceptable, perhaps giving them pause for thought the next time they pick up their phone.
Abuse Isn’t The Same As Criticism
I’m not some sort of happy, clappy hippy who thinks that no one should ever say a bad word about anyone else. I’ve been critical of players in the past when their performances haven’t been good enough, or if I’ve felt as though they shouldn’t play for Liverpool Football Club. Criticism isn’t the same thing as abuse, which is something it’s really important to establish. Questioning why a player played in the manner that they did on social media, when you’re merely tweeting your opinion out to your followers, is entirely different from actively sending a tweet to the player in question and telling them they’ve been rubbish, that they should kill themselves or issuing some sort of racist comment. It really doesn’t matter what your job is or how much you’re paid, I’m not sure that sort of thing is acceptable. Perhaps Tory politicians are the exception that proves the rule. Generally speaking, though, some people need to learn how to reign in their natural tendency to want to be abusive as a response to a performance rather than being critical in an acceptable manner. The player doesn’t need to hear your thoughts directly.
People really need to remember that athletes are just people, and they quite literally do not owe you entertainment at the expense of their health
— Mari Lewis (@MariCLewis) July 27, 2021
What’s happened to Simone Biles in the Olympics is proof of how much pressure major sports stars are under. It’s not about them needing to ‘toughen up’, as a quick look at Biles’ career will show you. She’s won medals with broken toes. She’s performed at the highest level with kidney stones. She is not someone who would shirk responsibility because things have become a little difficult. Instead, she’s a person that has found themselves under such an intense pressure that she’s needed to give herself a break. Imagine how much more difficult it is for someone like that to make such a decision, knowing that when they login to a social media account they’ll be confronted with vast amounts of abuse. That some of it will be racist in nature makes it even more depressing, but it’s not as if non-racist abuse is any more acceptable. We live in a world in which sending abuse to famous people is easy, but that doesn’t mean that it should be done. It also doesn’t mean that the people themselves should just take it and perform for our entertainment. Gini Wijnaldum was right to speak out, it’s just a shame the people that most need to won’t listen.