Behind The Social Woes Of Professional Football

Co-authored by Evan Mitchell, Co-founder Millennial Brand/Communication Specialists HOW&Y

A not so secret problem

It’s a perennial issue. A series of sexual misconduct allegations involving male athletes ignites a media frenzy. After initial (and justifiable) hand-wringing, the attention shifts to remedies. Top of the list of targets, always, is the perceived most fundamental and deep-seated source of the problem – a lack of respect for women. Again this is understandable. Those dots cry out to be connected, and who could argue with the logic or morality of that assumption? It imbues functional autonomy –a purity of principle overriding the need for further justification.


Inside The Mind Of The Millennial Footballer

That’s as it should be. The male of the species cannot receive too much encouragement in building respect for the female. More power to those who set out to develop this.

The difficulty arises when the problem doesn’t go away. And that’s the case in professional sport today.

Sexual misconduct by male sportspeople hasn’t, and isn’t, going away. There are some riders to this. Evidence suggests that team sports are at the greatest risk of offending, much more than individual competitors. And those sports which overtly foster aggression – football and basketball – have by far the worst record.

Under the surface

Though it deserves the sternest condemnation, sexual misconduct is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to actions that stain sporting codes and clubs in the eyes of the public. There are other examples, less dramatic and less well understood. In a prior article, “Inside the Mind of the Millennial Footballer”, we looked at how footballers, in particular, are increasingly prone to self-defeating behavior. Examples were given of how this plays out on the field – to the despair of coaches and fans alike. Front and center when it comes to causes is the Millennial generation mindset.

The natural outcome of these influences is a less confident and less socially resourceful individual. One much less likely to make good spur-of-the-moment decisions.

Misconduct off the field – whether sexual in nature, physical assault, vandalism, alcohol or drug offences – are fuelled by the self-same attitudes and habits: a sense of entitlement, resistance to criticism, temptation to change for change sake, exaggerated self-esteem (as distinct from self-confidence), tech and social media obsession, peer group domination… The natural outcome of these influences is a less confident and less socially resourceful individual. One much less likely to make good spur-of-the-moment decisions. Evidence on Millennials strongly bears this out. Research findings on this generation compared to the previous show a dramatic increase in susceptibility to anxiety and depression, an equally dramatic decrease in Locus of Control (a measure of how much they believe they’re in control their own lives), and an extraordinary ambivalence about how to communicate – with an overwhelming majority more comfortable talking online than face-to-face. (As continually pointed out in our writings, the fault for this doesn’t lie with Millennials themselves. It’s the result of external factors – educational, cultural, psychological – over which the generation had no control.)

Footballers are unlikely to fall within the mainstream of Millennial characteristics. For a range of social and cultural reasons, many are more likely to lie at the extremes – more entitled, more resistant to criticism, more inclined to impulsive acts and movement, more influenced by peers, with more erratic and damaging social media habits. And far less confident and competent in dealing with interpersonal situations, in their professional and personal lives. Put all this together, with alcohol and other compromising temptations, and the result is unlikely to involve mature decision-making.

The solution lies in Millennial research findings

So where does this leave the football codes and their stakeholders – team managements, coaching staffs, fans, the general public, advertising sponsors, the media – by way of remedies? It’s not as if the players haven’t been berated enough, by football administrators, the press, even politicians. Nor does public shame seem to work – other than generating pious, lawyerly apologies and promises that the lesson had been learned.

Let’s go back to what the evidence on Millennials shows. Publications as authoritative and broadly based as Harvard Business Review, Harvard Law School Program, Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Australian, Forbes magazine, BrainWorld, The Leadership Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Gallup, LinkedIn, and a raft of psychological studies, all point to persistent Millennial workplace problems in handling interpersonal relationships. Because of the educational practices at the time, this generation was brought up on a diet of enhanced self-esteem. But just as this failed to produce better achievement outcomes, it also failed to generate self-confidence. And that’s the nub of the problem.

Many Millennials, footballers included, have no real sense of self-empowerment. How could they? Empowerment comes from the self-confidence of knowing we’re able to handle difficult situations – in the workplace or in personal lives. Without the feeling of being in control of our lives, it’s difficult to develop or maintain consistent self-discipline. Much easier instead to fall back on blaming the circumstances, or other people, when actions get out of hand.

Empowerment is key

Without a sense of empowerment as the foundation, without the knowledge that they can deal with difficult challenges involving other people – whether teammates, their partners, or even a casual date – Millennial footballers will be rudderless, unmoored, and likely to be swept along by events they should have controlled.

In the 1980s and 90s when Millennial teens dumped their parents as developmental models in favour of the peer group, the resultant damage was shared equally. The difference was the parents felt their loss, while the teenagers were oblivious. They could hardly recognize the loss of something they’d never experienced.

So the practical tuition in dispute resolution that parents traditionally brought – the knowledge that differences of opinion necessitated looking at both sides, that collaboration and compromise were essential if arguments were to be sorted somehow and not end up as screaming matches with no winners – these understandings and personal benefits that earlier generations learned by trial and error while growing up, were denied to Millennials. They were denied a heritage they didn’t know existed.

This is the logical starting point to empowering Millennial footballers. To give them what they missed out on – a collaborative mentality. Not to make them nicer individuals, though it may. But because it’s in their interest to learn these things, and self-interest is the greatest motivator. Any attempt to correct poor behavioural self-control is doomed unless it’s predicated on self-interest. They need to learn, to have it proven to them in practical terms, relevant to their game and life, that there’s more to be gained by more collaborative approaches to dispute handling and conflict resolution.

This is not a view that’s self-evident. The Millennial style learned in the psychological cesspool of social media, is to avoid conflict or to double-down when challenged. Neither works. And there are no walkaway options. Everything that happens in the broad network family of a football code, affects other stakeholders. So disputes that are not resolved satisfactorily, come back to bite. Footballers need to accept that reality, in their own self-interest before further progress can happen.

That’s lesson 1. Learning it is the first step in learning self-control. Actioning it is the first step in correcting errant behavior within a code. And it’s not an optional move. It can be complementary to other initiatives, but there’s no progress without it. And no solution to a problem that will bleed social goodwill from professional football and increase the competitive possibilities of alternative codes of sport.

Lesson 2 takes empowerment in a different, more advanced and stimulating direction, to the enrichment of football codes and their players. This will come in a follow-up article.

NOTE. The primary author spent two years in the trenches of professional football in the era of Gen X while establishing a Performance Management program within a prominent Australian Rugby League football club.


  • Repetto, Nicole K., “Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Elite Athletes”, Eastern Michigan University, 2016.
  • Susan Lakika, “Sports and Sexual Assault”, Copress, Co. Researcher, April 28, 2017.
  • Justin Coulson, “Teaching our boys to respect women”, Generation Next, November 2015.
  • Evan Mitchell and Brian Mitchell, “Rage against the machine”, The Australian, “The Deal”, April 2018.
  • Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell, “Shadowing Science – A Lesson for Marketing in Paradigm Shift”, BizCatalyst 360°, March 2016.
  • Brian Mitchell & Evan Mitchell, “The Future Will Be Non-Negotiable – The Coming Age of Unresolvable Conflict”, BizCatalyst 360°, April 2018.
  • Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell, “Inside the Mind of the Millennial Footballer”, BizCatalyst 360°, July 2018.
  • Keniston, Kenneth, (1971), Youth and Dissent: The Rise of a New Opposition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY.
  • Hershatter and M. Epstein, “Millennials and the World of Work,” J.Bus.Psych. 25, 2010.
  • Elena Douglas, “The soft skills gap,” The Australian, “The Deal”, August 2018.


Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell write extensively on psychological themes, with scores of published articles on three continents. Brian has a clinical Ph.D. and a significant period as a therapist. Evan has Honors degrees in Psychology and English Literature, and also extensive practical experience. They have two published books. The well-reviewed hardcover The Psychology of Wine: truth and beauty by the glass ( ) – Praeger US (and now in eBook edition) explored the aesthetics of wine and art and their psychological possibilities. This led to the storyline and structure of their upcoming literary thriller The Last Cave, an action narrative of suspense and surprise in the mode of Terry Hayes’ I am Pilgrim. Prior to writing full-time, the pair conducted a successful US consulting operation specializing in negotiation effectiveness. Subsequently extended to generational studies on decision making tendencies by Gens Y and Z in the consumer world and politics.They can be reached through [email protected]

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