For Some Arsenal Fans It Means Not A Burning Passion, For Ben White It Means Not Burning Out
Imagine for a moment that you are a trial attorney (or for those of you in the United Kingdom, a barrister). After a long, grueling day of reviewing evidence, formulating opening and closing statements, and preparing to examine witnesses, you retire home for a much needed rest.
On your way home, you are stopped by a reporter and asked if you like to watch the greats of your profession in your spare time. “Do you know much about Johnnie Cochran?” they ask. You answer that you do not, but you know he was a great attorney. They follow up with, “How about Mary Jo White?” Your response is the same. You don’t watch other lawyers in your spare time. In fact, you do anything but that.
Now if you’re not an attorney of some kind, you can obviously substitute in a parallel scenario more relatable to your own profession. But imagine that after giving such answers, you wake up to find that the internet is livid with you. How dare you not consume what you do for a living as entertainment? Why wouldn’t you give up the last remaining morsels of your time every day to a job that has already claimed the rest?
That’s probably how Ben White felt on Friday.
If you don’t know, the English defender was interviewed this week ahead of Arsenal’s match against Crystal Palace. White was asked if he knew much about Patrick Vieira, now the manager at Palace, and the current Arsenal man stated that he didn’t really watch much football, even when he was a kid. White went on to state that he does anything but think about football when he is not playing or training.
In response, much of the Arsenal faithful have decided to make him Public Enemy #1 for the week. Some supporters have declared online that they have no choice but to bin him after essentially saying he doesn’t take his work home with him. For them, it is practically inconceivable that a footballer would want to pursue a personal life entirely separate for the sport they play.
But in reality, White’s approach isn’t just understandable. It is downright sensible. In normal times with normal careers, carving out a life away from your day job is a very healthy behavior to adopt. Football, however, is not a normal career.
The sport is becoming a more and more intense occupation every day, as White very much alluded to. Players are expected to perform at ridiculously high levels physically, with their bodies constantly inspected by clubs and fans alike for the slightest deviation away from peak shape. Sports scientists and health experts monitor their fitness on a daily basis and give them strict dietary and exercise regiments to follow.
On top of that, players are now expected to be smarter than ever too. Up and down league tables across the world, coaches are implementing more comprehensive tactics and intellectually demanding styles of play. The use of statistics and advanced metrics is the norm. Players are often given homework in the form of watching tape, either to identify ways to exploit the opposition or to improve their own deficiencies. White is likely familiar with all of this, having now played for Marcelo Bielsa, Graham Potter, and Mikel Arteta.
Furthermore, footballers are now expected to be more accessible in the age of social media. Interviews, AMAs, live streams, and fun little trivia or competition videos with teammates are now all part of the job too. While their full commitment is demanded on the pitch, top-level players’ attention and engagement are demanded off it.
And now, the grueling schedule caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2022 World Cup’s occurrence during the winter, and proposed higher frequencies of international tournaments threaten to force high-level footballers to play year-round. Even now, the best players may be required to play nine months of league football, which might entail up to three games a week during that time for those at more successful clubs with some international friendlies and qualifiers sprinkled in, before going off to spend one month playing in a tournament for their country. That is soon followed by returning to their clubs for preseason before the whole thing starts again. Modern football is a hyper-commercialized assembly-line operation, and players are the ones feeling the brunt of the effects.
Elite professional football is a 24/7, seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year commitment. Players get very limited down time, and even then, there is almost always someone watching whenever they are out and about in public. Years of sacrifice and pressure and assessment starting from an early age can easily make what is a passion for us supporters feel like a job and no more than that for them. Even Lionel Messi himself once admitted that he never watches football on television. It doesn’t matter how much you love something; if that thing takes over your life, you will eventually need a break from it. For Ben White and so many others, that something is football.
At a time when awareness and advocacy regarding the mental health of professional athletes is on the rise, it is disappointing to see so many chide one of our own for simply doing what he needs to in order to remain well. White doesn’t keep his personal life separate from football because he doesn’t care about football or the club he plays for. He does it so that he avoids burning out before he has even reached his mid-20s. More power to him if compartmentalization allows him to continue being an asset for Arsenal Football Club.
The last year and a half have reminded us that there is more to life than just football. But perhaps it should be emphasized that this isn’t an attitude that only supporters should adopt. It also goes for the footballers themselves.
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