Well, here are the facts. Community interventions by professional footballers in this country have accelerated from around 9000 during the 2005/6 season to 35,000 in 2010/11. Perhaps the question we should really be asking is why aren’t we hearing more about what goes on behind the scenes?
Perhaps it’s because, traditionally, those telling the stories have always focused on trying to increase circulation or win viewers.
It was interesting to hear then, as he announced the tie-up between the Professional Footballers’ Association and Digital Sports Group recently, PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor declare: “It is also our intention to highlight our members’ activities with charities and community work which is something that is sometimes all too sadly overlooked in traditional media.”
Don’t worry – that doesn’t mean stopping the stories which gets fans excited, it just means levelling the playing field and raising awareness around important issues which football is helping to highlight.
PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle, who himself bucks the trend of the stereotypical inarticulate footballer, is adamant this process will help to redress the balance.
“The profile of football is phenomenal. Because these guys play a sport they have a platform to convey a message to hundreds of millions of people on a weekly basis, not just at one-off events where they might be able to access that wider audience. Football is a phenomenal medium to get a message across. If you get a high-profile player it will proliferate the message far wider than the campaign would be able to by itself.
“There were 35,000 social inclusion visits last season, from a member base of 3,000. That is phenomenal and the players do fantastic work year on year. Yet there is so much more we can do. The lads are aware of this, and a lot of them a setting up their own charitable projects. The more work lads do like this, the better their image will be in society.”
Carlisle admits: “In our game, good news is no news. The front pages are always about misbehaviour, whether footballers or other celebrities. It is the bad news that makes news.
“Sometimes you have to be self-reliant on blowing your own trumpet. We have to spread that message ourselves. We were reluctant to until now but the message we are getting is that people don’t hear enough about the work we do. It is about time we addressed that and projected a positive public image with loud messages about the work the lads do; hopefully we will redress the balance.
“I think it is imperative that as individuals, clubs and as an industry as a whole. Q&A sessions are excellent but a lot of players are uncomfortable in that scenario. Speaking in public forums is not their forte. I think it is imperative we embrace social media. Everyone can be comfortable in front of their computer or on their phone. As an industry we need to keep up with the times and stay relevant. The guys have to use it in a responsible manner.
“For many years, people have said the Premier League has created an untouchable footballer. Obviously times have changed, but fans used to go down to the pub with players, they would chat on the bus. These days are reminisced about and contrasted to today’s football. People think players don’t care about fans’ thoughts and wishes. That is totally untrue and I think social media can be the way to bridge the gap that has been created. It is not just a statement forum or a noticeboard for players and clubs to pin messages on, but it is a way of interacting with fans, a way of entering into discourse and taking on questions and answering them at your own leisure. It is excellent, interacting with fans on a medium they are using.”
After all, however rich or famous, players are still only human – just ask Fabrice Muamba or Stilian Petrov. To this end, Carlisle feels certain that the footballing community has benefited from fans being able to converse with their idols on a level playing field.
“When such tragedy happens it is great to see that life transcends football and everyone gathers round – the footballing community, fans community, wider community – everyone gathered together to give collective best wishes. The way it took off on Twitter and Facebook was absolutely brilliant. It really restored a lot of people’s faith in the integrity of mankind, never mind football.
“The way football is, there is going to be rivalry. People have their affiliations and loyalties and that will cause conflict through the season. But it is when something like this happens, that is above and beyond the nature of football as an industry, that is when we see the best of human nature come out. It is fantastic to see.”
If all of this sounds a little too ‘worthy’ for your Saturday afternoon habit of choice, then try to think about the outcomes of what is actually being achieved.
Think about the aims of charities like the Football Foundation, whose sole aim is to provide better facilities so we raise the technical standard of young players across the country. Yes, that might one day mean a successful England team. Or maybe it will just mean more healthy, active kids.
Think about Street League, which uses football as the hook to take frustrated, angry young adults off the streets of our inner cities and gives them employability skills so they can go and get jobs.
Breaking news: Football IS helping society on a massive scale…… it’s just you haven’t heard about it yet.
Article by ConnectSport. Interview by Andy Hampson of The Press Association, in conjunction with http://www.knowthescore.org.uk/ helping raise awareness of Bowel Cancer.