Footballer Rio Ferdinand on race, sexuality and mental health in football

Former Manchester United player, Rio Ferdinand’s, latest project Tipping Point, is a three-part docu-series focussing on the key issues that continue to plague football – racism, homophobia, and mental health.

In the documentaries, Ferdinand will try to get to the root cause of why racism is so prevalent in the sport and why it isn’t improving, along with why there are no openly gay footballers in the Premier League, and why mental health crisis in football has been largely unreported.

The docu-series which has been two years in the making, sees Rio speak to people connected to the sport at all levels, including interviews with elite players such as Thomas Hitzlsperger, key figures at governing bodies within the sport, and also fans of the game.

He said: “It has been a process and a journey which has been educational, seeing sport through a different lens. As an industry we’re at a tipping point and real change needs to be made to safeguard the future of our game. I’ve been approached to do things on racism and different topics around football many times, but I think the difference with this one – and we had the ability to talk about this – is that it wasn’t going to be something where it was just highlighting the issues. There’s always a lot of these things that are done where it’s just about highlighting issues, it’s not about what’s the next step. And I think we tried to get that across in these different episodes – yes, there’s an issue and yes, we’ll highlight it, but how do we get the ball rolling to continue the conversation for some sort of development and positive, impactful change?”

Whilst Ferdinand has always been vocal about racism and how prevalent it is in the game, often taking part in campaigns aimed at educating and stamping it out, tackling the issue of homophobia was new territory for Ferdinand, which he says was one of the reasons the subject of the documentary particularly appealed to him.

He said: “I think that was the challenging, exciting kind of element to it. I think people would expect me to do a documentary about racism because I’ve been so vocal in years gone by, but the sexuality episode – and even the mental health episode – not so much. So my approach to it was very different. I’m going into racism with a bit more knowledge and understanding, whereas with sexuality that was very much an area where there was a vulnerability for me, kind of showing up with my mistakes that I had made previously”

The episode focusing on homophobia within the sport sees Ferdinand speak to some of the small number of male professional footballers who are openly gay, including Josh Cavallo and Collin Martin, from Australia and America respectively. Blackpool’s Jake Daniels is the only openly gay active player in the UK, after ‘coming out’ earlier this year.

While some progress has been made around LGBTQIA+ rights at club level and among fanbases, there is currently concern about the upcoming World Cup in Qatar – a country where homosexuality is illegal. There’s a general feeling that the decision to stage the tournament in a nation with homophobic laws, undermines the progress that has been made.

The final episode of the series explores another area that has often been stigmatised in football, mental health, an area where Ferdinand was able to draw on his past experiences yet again. It particularly focuses on young players, where over recent years, there has been an alarming increase in the number of players reporting problems with depression and anxiety and other mental health struggles.

He said: “In football, the culture has always been a macho environment, and with any sign of vulnerability or emotion, you’re deemed as somebody who’s surplus to requirements. I was probably part of that problem, as I discuss on that episode, and that was the culture back then. Whereas I think now, even my own experience is that talking and communicating and showing a vulnerable side of yourself, showing emotion, being able to say that things aren’t okay, that should be embraced. And I think there’s going to have to be an education process for the people that are coaching, or in the education areas of these football clubs, to enable these young people to be able to speak and to feel comfortable and not actually feel that they’ll be judged in the aftermath of showing that side of themselves.”

Ferdinand argues that past initiatives to combat mental health struggles in the game have often been nothing more than “tick box” exercises.

He hopes that the series will help viewers gain a better understanding of these issues and the impact they have in the sport and beyond, along with encouraging people to think about dealing with the issues in more proactive ways and thus helping to deliver positive and long-lasting change.

Rio Ferdinand’s Tipping Point is streaming on Prime Video from Friday 11th November.


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