Is Mason Greenwood a victim too?
The last time we saw a sporting career wholly destroyed overnight was when Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour De France titles in January 2013 following his admission to taking performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong’s crookery lasted a few decades – he had time to build up a massive financial portfolio and vaults in advertising royalties before his demise as a sporting celebrity at age 40.
Now, however, Manchester United and England’s ‘Boy Wonder’, Mason Greenwood, looks about to set a new low for sporting idols. While there is no Armstrong-like legacy in play, Greenwood is embroiled in a scandal that’s not only bitterly serious in nature, but is likely to cost him his reputation, his integrity, his assets and millions of pounds in potential income well before his 21st birthday!
If allegations of rape and physical abuse brought by his former girlfriend stand up in court, the youngster may well be spending a proportion of his best years in a place where football is only played in a courtyard covered with cement blocks and urine.
Greenwood was interrogated, arrested, later re-arrested and then released on bail. At this writing he hasn’t made a statement in denial of the accusations against him, and audio recordings released to the police have made things no easier for him. His club, sponsors and teammates have deserted him. On E-Bay, there appears to be little or no interest in Greenwood memorabilia already being sold at a fraction of the prices they were bought for.
When shocking things like these happen, one invariably looks at the reasons that may have caused the reported (and alleged) incidents. Where did the aggression come from? What leads a young man with such all-round promise and a high public profile to sink to such ungraspable lows?
Former soccer star Wayne Rooney, in a documentary due for release on Amazon this Friday, said that he had a serious battle with anxiety after emerging as English football’s brightest star. He went on secret drinking sessions to cope with the public pressure and scrutiny and was sometimes drunk for days at a time.
Rooney, who appeared on the Everton scene at 16 and was soon snapped up by Manchester United, said: “For me to deal with that, deal with stuff that was in the newspapers, deal with the manager (Alex Ferguson) at the time, deal with family at the time, was very difficult. It was just a build-up of everything, pressure of playing for your country, playing for Manchester United, the pressure of some of the stuff which came out in the newspapers about my personal life.”
Greenwood, by all accounts, had a good upbringing, but he must have felt pressure to perform from an early age. He won a newspaper modelling contest at four years old, was never seen without a football from the age of five, and at seven had a photo taken at The Cliff, United’s Salford training ground, standing with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The then United reserve team boss said: “I asked Mason for the picture because I knew he was going to be a player.”
Greenwood signed his first pro contract with United aged 16, in 2018, earning £800 a week. His deal was improved to a £15,000 a week in the same year, and he was on £75,000 a week and reportedly asking for more at the time of his arrest. What does being in control of such money and power at such a tender age do to a young footballer? Who are the individuals they attract at the flick of a finger? What does it mean to literally have the world at your feet?
Arsene Wenger, speaking to The Guardian in 2016, commented: “The modern education in the youth teams today has many questions,” he said. “Do we specialise them too early? Do we give them too much coaching too early and not enough freedom? Do we isolate them too early from other sports? Should they not practise other sports at an early age and transfer their skills to our sport? Do we isolate them too early from normal social life? Perhaps it will be better for them to go to a normal school and practise after school rather than at 16 give them every day only football as a professional life.”
Wenger said that trying to look at the bigger picture in terms of the amount of stress and corresponding lack of normality for a youngster remains an exception rather than the rule.
The Mental Coaching Company, Inner Drive, suggested in a blog that young, up-and-coming footballers should be taught a number of principles, including learning how to fail, also mastery orientation and anger management with the help of sports psychologists.
Grassroots football in the United Kingdom has made attempts to take the pressure off of young players and to emphasis technical development. Has it worked? In some ways, wrote premierfootballuk.com, it has worked on the grassroots level, but the pressure to perform well continues to be high for youngsters. The pressure is something football players must learn to deal with. Unfortunately, too many young players feel the pressure on the pitch early on and struggle to overcome it as they get older.
The Mason Greenwood case is an alarm bell. Youngsters resorting to drugs, alcohol, sex and violence is nothing new. Pressure of all sorts has been there, always. But with social media setting the trends, the pressure on young footballers, especially, has doubled. And in this media-exploited era of outrageous salaries paid to young footballers, it has surely doubled again.
More debate is needed, alongside preventative action. At this very moment, we’d like to argue, there are more Mason Greenwoods in football’s ranks and probably more scandals to follow in its aftermath. If these youngsters are indeed victims of their unique professional environments, how are we going to steer them to equilibrium, professional composure and self-command? – IRC.