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Durham University

Department of Sociology

Completed Projects

The effects of public recognition on the private selves of high profile athletes

A research project of the Department of Sociology.


Few academics working in sport science have taken welfare issues for professional athletes seriously, preferring instead to prioritise and pioneer sport and medical science technologies that seek only to improve athletic performance. There have been several widely discussed cases of athletes suffering psychiatric illnesses, including cricketer Marcus Trescothick’s episodes of depression, and footballer Gary Speed’s suicide. Several sports unions have subsequently created athlete helplines to address mental health related problems: good and poor health in high-level sport is not just physical. Professional sport is assumed to be a labour of love, a glamorous and well paid form of employment; yet, the public nature of this performance trade can bleed into athletes’ lives and in time they can struggle to develop a sense of who they are and what they have become, because all their work stems from others’ claims to control, survey, observe and correct their working bodies. Even so, psychiatric illnesses have been least often utilised to describe the nature of the dark side of sport.


The aim of this qualitative study is to investigate the lives of professional athletes, examining public recognition as a condition of work that reaches beyond the workplace, and which may affect athletes’ self-identities in unintended, sometimes crippling ways. At a time when mental health problems are generating increasing concern and debate, in this timely pilot study I will explore the strategies used by athletes to uphold a professional identity in this contingent form of employment. Based on semi-structured interviews conducted with current professional athletes, who are subject to intense levels of physical and mental surveillance, I propose to examine how they attach meaning to private and social spaces in their lives, and raise the question of where, day-to-day, do they shed the fear of exposure and be ‘themselves’. Genuinely ‘private’ spaces for athletes can diminish rapidly. The proposed 24 month study aims to inform sports organisations and mental health charities about welfare support policy for athletes at all stages of their careers.


This project will be based on 25 semi-structured interviews undertaken over a fieldwork period of 18 months with a purposive sample, constructed of male and female professional athletes. The criteria for selection of research participants will be (i) that they are current professional athletes; (ii) that they have been written about in the national press, and (iii) that they are recognisable when in the ‘public eye’. Participants will be recruited via two principle means, as this is a hard-to- reach group of contemporary elites: (i) As a former professional footballer, with insider status, I will access key gatekeepers and wider research networks developed during previous research all of which have agreed to offer time and assistance; (ii) I will approach Durham Alumni who have engaged recently in University initiatives. Several notable graduates are employed in professional sport and have agreed to interview. 


A major aim of the study will be to impact on sport-policy debates focusing on applied ways to support athletes throughout, rather than solely as they transition from, athletic careers. 


I expect the proposed study to generate three main kinds of research outputs. Firstly, I propose to construct a non-technical report to be shared with (i) professional sports organisations (such as the Professional Footballers’ Association) and (ii) key mental health charities such as Mind and Sane, both of whom have employed the services of high profile male professional athletes to promote, specifically, male-focused campaigns. Secondly, the data set will be used to form the basis of three articles to be prepared for publication in well-regarded journals: (i) Sociology, (ii) Work, Employment and Society, and (iii) The British Journal of Sports Medicine. Thirdly, working in co-operation with Durham Media Relations, I will prepare a press release to accompany the publication of the non- technical research report with the purpose of attracting media coverage. 


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