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Friday, December 02, 2005

Footballer Psychology

In this article, we take a deep breath and dive deep into the mind of the Aussie Rules footballer. Well, as deep as one can in that wading-pool. What motivates them? Why do they act like they do? Why do they ask for so much, yet contribue so little? What are the dangers for the rest of us? We draw upon ground-breaking academic research, media analysis and of course, footballers' own words to answer these questions.

This isn't the first time we've tried shedding light on what makes an AFL player tick: we've looked at their low education levels and why some take delight in rape. But, in light of recent press coverage, we're going to tackle this psychology head-on.

For starters, what does the scientific literature have to say? Associate Professor Lindsay Fitzclarence has specialised in the study of these distasteful specimens:

"Games such as football that actively foster tight bonding between players also have the capacity to objectify those not in the group as outsiders, creating an environment of 'group-think' where females can be treated as less than equal," Dr Fitzclarence said.

"Another factor within the ranks of elite sportsmen is the development of an exaggerated sense of entitlement and a diminished sense of responsibility and empathy, in which personal and group wants and desires dominate over consideration for others.

"When you add this to a set of unwritten laws of conduct in which drug abuse, excessive alcohol use and violence are prevalent, the sorts of scandals that have surfaced recently are no real surprise."

Fair enough: footballers go tribal, indulge in pills and booze and commit gang rapes. Sadly, it plays out time and time again. But what motivates them to do this? For an example of this "exaggerated sense of entitlement and diminished sense of responsibility and empathy", let's look at how footy players see themselves, in their own words. Given that many of them are functionally illiterate and media-managed so as to avoid speaking in public, this is actually a difficult task.

One source I've turned up is Peter di Sisto who (perhaps through a ghost-writer) pleads for public sympathy for the struggles of being a professional footballer:

I’m your average AFL player. Sure, I earn a sweet salary for my age – in fact, many of you think I’m overpaid. I’m known in some parts of town. The chicks really dig me. I rarely have to pay for a drink. I drive a nasty car and I’ve just put a deposit on my first investment property. “Cha-ching,” I hear you say. (The Player's View, The Australian Football Quarterly, March 2005)

[Edit: Note that this first-person account is actually a fictional character composited from player interviews by the author. Acknowledgements to Matthew for pointing this out.]

Yeah, cry me a river, Pete. He goes on to sook and whinge about the dangers of unexpected injury, without having any marketable skills to fall back on. Whose fault is that? Professional sports allows these guys thousands of hours of leisure time to develop any range of useful (or even useless!) skills.

To find out if they're making the most of this opportunity, let's find out what study, trade or craft footy players take up to see them through the next 60 years. Metal-work? Business management? Landscaping? No. It's Playstation. That's right. A recent study has shown that AFL footballers are prone to lazing about on the couch playing console games:

... a study warns that players are struggling to find a life outside the game while meeting the demands of being an elite footballer.

This was despite the efforts of clubs to counter the "Playstation syndrome" - where players are either playing football or computer games - by requiring them to undertake some form of training or education, get a job or do community-based activities.

Christopher Hickey, of Deakin University, who co-authored the report, which includes interviews with players and executives, said getting the balance right, particularly for young players, was proving difficult.

Many young players, the research found, failed or dropped out of secondary schooling and further study in pursuit of an AFL career. Players in the elite junior levels were often travelling long distances to play and struggling to juggle training and schoolwork. (The Age, 27/11/2005)

[All those hours on the couch playing X-Box .. certainly explains the great reluctance of AFL players to give up dope. I think banning marijuana choofing will do more to break so-called Playstation Syndrome than any kick up the backside!]

Yet, many of us would be baffled that 20 year-olds "earning" several hundred grand a year - whose only commitment is to train (or play) for a few hours most days for about half the year - don't have the wherewithall to set themselves up for the future. But this gives us a further inkling into their head-space: "I deserve success; footy will see me right; youse owe me a living coz I can kick the ball good". This is exactly that "exaggerated sense of entitlement" to which the Monash researchers referred.

Hardly surprising, then, that they refuse to be held to account for the disgusting social behaviours of their tribe (the "diminished sense of responsibility and empathy"). For example, the recent AFL policy changes about dealing with footballer-rapists has prompted considerable push-back from the AFL players' union:

AFL Players Association chief executive Brendon Gale confirmed last night that players would take their concerns about the "Conduct Unbecoming" rule to a criminal law expert before deciding on a court challenge.

Under its "Respect and Responsibility" policy released this month, the AFL can impose a range of punishments, including suspension and delisting, to players accused of sexual assault — even before their cases have been heard in court.


The players' objections relate to three major areas of the new rules; the power to suspend a player being investigated or having been committed for trial over an alleged sexual assault.

The two other concerns were the newly regulated compulsion to notify the league of any investigation — which the players believed eroded a footballer's basic privacy rights — and the ban on making payments to alleged sexual assault victims — which could be seen as "hush money" when in fact such an exchange of money could be an out-of-court settlement or victim's compensation. (The Age, 28/11/2005)

So, like mediaeval nobility of old, the AFL players' position seems to be that the appropriate response to raping someone is financial recompense for their lost virtue. And if anything undermines their ability to make a pay-off, then it is a "fundamental erosion of their human rights". Similarly, they believe that serious and credible allegations of sexual assaults against women do not "bring the game into disrepute". Presumably, the game was already long in disrepute, so there's no point fining or terminating the player's contract.

But, as The Age reported, the AFL had to act after "Adam Heuskes (formerly of Sydney, Port Adelaide and Brisbane), Peter Burgoyne (Port Adelaide) and Michael O'Loughlin (Sydney) paid an Adelaide woman $200,000 for rape allegations [to be dropped]". And, of course, last year when "St Kilda players Stephen Milne and Leigh Montagna [were] investigated over sexual assault allegations". So, kudos to the AFL from backing down from it's appalling earlier "rape purchase" policy and standing up to the players' union. (Hopefully, the AFL executive will be bouyed by their victory over AFL stoners.)

So don't hold out for Amnesty International to start a round the clock vigil for AFL players missing out on match payments because a bit slap and tickle got out of hand. It's just another example of how AFL players want the fame and money - and sex - but without the scrutiny. What can you expect when you're in Year Ten and your 35 year-old PE teacher is in awe of you because of your drop punt? When the local police blush and giggle in your presence? When no one asks anything from you except - play footy well.

Which leads to the next point: how good is the guidance and mentoring young players receive from the silver backs of their troupe? A fascinating study from Melbourne University academics sheds some light on this:

Findings also showed that AFL players involved in activities outside football – in particular study – are more likely to have more positive attitudes towards women and be open to other social norms and standards.


The project found that there are five factors – AFL experience, playing ability, masculine attitudes, the formation of social cliques/small groupings, and mutual social relations – that are important in determining who players choose to socialise with after hours.

In some clubs, players with dominative attitudes towards women are popular in after-hours social networks regardless of playing experience.

The research shows that players tend to socialise with players of similar playing experience. But the best players, although popular and influential figures, were not always well integrated into the after hours network.

“The influence of experienced and skilful players with less dominative attitudes towards women can be important in moderating behaviour during after-hours activities. The best players in clubs tend to be admired, popular and seen as influential by other players,” Dr Robins said.

“One issue in many of the club social set-ups, however, is that these experienced and skilful players sometimes have a lower integration in the after-hours network, so their influence may not always be available at moments of risk.”

Given the cosy nature of the relationship between the boffins and the AFL (not to mention sweet, sweet cash), you have to read between the lines. For example, that last paragraph means "normal grown ups don't want to be around these young thugs, so they don't drink with them, which means the little bastards get into worse strife."

The key message here is that there are two factors that can help prevent sexual assault: taking up non-footy activities (especially education) and the presence of leading players with normal attitudes to sex and women. Sadly, both are sorely lacking in AFL culture and no re-education campaign can bring them in.

This Melbourne study also re-inforces the earlier Monash study in stressing the importance of getting positive messages from respected elders early on. But how can this happen when the culture fawns over these kids? When "respect" comes from getting shit-faced and pissing (literally urinating) on women in bars? When any decent human being who plays elite football refuses to "go out with the boys" because it will end up with some spoilt kid snorting, brawling or raping?

It's not surprising that our footy has been professionalised: as we've seen with the AFL TV rights fiasco, there's big money to be made for big media. It follows that AFL players will get richer, start younger and dumber and have fewer outside interests. So we should not be shocked when we find out the myriad ways their "exaggerated sense of entitlement" and "diminished sense of responsibility" plays out, whether its drugs, rape or violence. These forces are beyond the control of ordinary citizens; the only question for us is, where do we draw the line and bring these spoilt Playstation-addicted thick millionaires to heel?

*** UPDATE ***

More serious academic scholarship on why AFL players are so, well, bad, this time from Melbourne University behavioural scientists. It confirms the common-sense view that players look up to other players who engage in sexual conquests and violence as much as skill and experience:

Cultures of sex and violence at AFL clubs are often influenced by the views of popular players, according to a Melbourne University study.

Researchers interviewed players at four unnamed AFL clubs, and the results led to one being branded the "violent club", and another the "playboy club".

The other two clubs were labeled the "football-oriented club" and the "anti-playboy club", the Herald Sun reports.

Popular players from the "playboy club" said their idea of masculinity was sexual success with women, while top athletes from the "anti-playboy club" rejected that idea.

In the "violent club", the most popular players felt that aggression was an important part of being a man.

The most popular players at the "football-oriented club" saw skill, age and experience as a measure of masculinity.

The study, conducted by Dr Dean Lusher and Associate Prof Garry Robbins, along with University of Ballarat colleague Dr Peter Kremer, found that the views of club members often reflected the views of the most popular players.

Dr Lusher is attending an international conference in Greece to present his results. (NineMSN, 2/5/2007)

Let's hope that Dr Lusher's research can help others make the next step to intervening in these social networks to produce better outcomes.

Citations: The Age, 27/11/2005; The Age, 28/11/2005; NineMSN, 2/5/2007

Word Count: 2150

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  • hahhhahhaha
    they all got tha same mind-set goin on inside those fat heads apart from a hand full! there are alot of young (and older, they mustve realised what they are doin with their lives) that put football behind- education, investments, business life, family life and other areas of hobbies that are not related with peak fitness and so on.

    but these other 'dogs' think they can get out of and do anything they want because of the light on them! the groups they travel in, i agree, in short fucked! haha especially in a group setting, with tha additudes you have explained, only motivates mis-judgement, unrealistic morals and ethics...followers, weak...
    if i had to choose between being with a group of footys boys, or jsut one footy boy ( all thinkin they are the same example in your writin and i was one of them as well) i'd choose tha one, because at least i have a greater control over behaviour, events and there is no peer pressure of what is cool, RIGHT and 'in' for that certain footy group...may it be makin some guys face look like he was someone else, taking everything from a girls life for jsut kicks

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:41 pm, April 29, 2006  

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  • Thankyou for wasting my time with this rubbish article that comes from an egotistical writer... why don't you do some proper research next time instead of providing us with this single minded ignorant piece of rubbish

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:44 pm, September 19, 2006  

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  • I am second tier AFL player; however I am also a qualified Lawyer and hold a degree in psychology.

    It is not my preference for sport, or my occupation, that defines me.

    You're an idiot.

    You do not have the mental or physical application too sustain something other than this anonymous internet sensationalism.

    You cut quotes from sources which are not peer reviewed and manipulate them to serve your purpose.

    Where in Christopher Hickey's article does it mention that retired football players take up play station gaming for the remainder of their lives?

    I do not disagree that some football players and other sports people are also idiots, but do you see them writing anonymous articles hiding behind a computer?

    Ask yourself this... who is the bigger idiot?

    I have known people like you my entire life. Losers. Not because they do or do not play sport. Not because of their occupation. They, and you, are losers because you have such a low sense of self worth that you attempt to ruin that of other people.

    You are a bigot.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:32 pm, August 25, 2009  

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  • So let's get this straight. You criticise me for writing anonymously when a) I'm not. That's my name, plastered all over the blog and comments; and b) you are posting anonymously. Care to leave your name? No?

    So we've established you're a hypocrite.

    Then you criticise me for directly quoting research in publicly available news sources rather than peer-reviewed academic papers - papers that are written in jargon and hidden behind paywalls only open to a very small percentage of the public?

    Get real. Had I quoted those peer-reviewed journals instead of the newspapers, I would have been criticised for not letting people check the quotes and quoting impenetrable gibberish!

    If you're suggesting that those researchers were mis-quoted by my mainstream news sources, then why haven't they complained?

    Then you descend into random ad hominem attacks and name calling, assuming that this blog is all I do or that I remind you of other people you don't like.

    I think we know all know who the biggest idiot here is.

    By Blogger Greg, at 1:57 pm, August 25, 2009  

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  • "One source I've turned up is Peter di Sisto who (perhaps through a ghost-writer) pleads for public sympathy for the struggles of being a professional footballer"

    Who did he play for and when?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:45 am, August 28, 2009  

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  • Follow the link provided.

    By Blogger Greg, at 12:11 pm, August 28, 2009  

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  • The link goes to an Essendon web page while also illustrating that the writer is making a fictional quote to support a point of view.
    I dare you to find evidence that he ever played AFL football at any level close to AFL.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:06 pm, August 28, 2009  

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    by Peter Di Sisto
    Player X, a composite footballer created from a series of player interviews,
    gives the human story behind the game’s injury statistics."

    Nice research

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:19 pm, August 28, 2009  

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