And Mckeown, M. (2012) a critical exploration of using football in health and welfare programs: Gender, masculinities and social relations. Journal of Sport and Social Issues. 36(4): 387-409 A

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Football as a vehicle to engage men

As the national sport in England, football has been viewed as well placed to promote mens health and engagement and as a medium to also support wider policy objectives such as social inclusion, participation and employment (Carter-Morris and Faulkner, 2003; Kelly, 2010). Football initiatives can be seen as interventions at the point at which social problems’ (especially urban social ills) and

‘individual health problems’ meet (Gatz et al. 2002). In particular, football has been viewed as an important medium to engage men who are seen as reluctant or unwilling to access services (Audit Commission, 2009; White & Witty, 2009).
As a result, numerous football-based initiatives have been developed to tackle health and social issues as diverse as reducing mental ill-health and challenging stigma; tackling domestic violence, youth crime and drug use; and promoting physical health (Robertson,

2003). Football has been used both as a practice i.e. playing and/or watching football (e.g. Evans et al. 2008; Pringle, 2004; Strong, 2009) and also as a concept i.e. using ideas or metaphors from the game, such as goal-setting to enable personal change (e.g. Jones, 2009;

Pringle and Sayers, 2006). For example, public health campaigns have used involvement in football as a practice to endorse the importance of physical exercise to healthy living (Robertson, 2003; White and Witty, 2009) and other recent initiatives have used football to engage men who may be marginalised and stigmatised, such as those with mental health problems (Carless and Douglas, 2008).
For example, Its a Goal!’ uses football metaphor and football venues to engage men who would not ordinarily access traditional mental health services in a goal-setting therapeutic programme (Pringle & Sayers, 2006; Its a Goal! 2011).Imagine your Goals’ engages men with mental health needs in physical exercise by playing football, and attempts to reduce the stigma of mental health problems and encourage social inclusion (Time to Change, 2011). Programmes have also used football to raise awareness amongst men about domestic violence (Flood, 2002b; Stanley et al. 2012). For example, high profile sportsmen have endorsed the message that violence against women is unacceptable, using sporting metaphor to position violence as against the rules’ and not ‘fair play and, by implication, as failed’ masculinity,

a sign of weakness and cowardiceii.

Football is also seen as having important therapeutic potential (Steckley, 2005) and, more specifically, as a remedy or outlet for undesirable masculine traits’ (Keane, 2009, p.165). This is because men are viewed as having a specific, and often complex, emotional relationship to football which these initiatives are able to tap into (Donaghy, 2006; Duffin,

2006). Football is believed to allow the safe expression of emotion allowing men to express feelings which are usually frowned upon such as sentimentality, romanticism, fear, pain, hurt, doubt and the need to be nurtured. It is, for example, seen as acceptable for men to get upset about the fate of their football team. Indeed some commentators have suggested that much of an elaborate stage set to enable men to feel’ (Burton Nelson, 1994, p.115). In another way of looking at this, some critical theorists contest the assumption that men cannot (or do not) do emotion, but suggest that men often tend to do’ emotion through action (Robertson, 2007). It is this ‘action orientated’ mode that is tapped into when sport is utilised in health and welfare programmes, for example by focusing on goal-setting, achievement and solutions, rather than reflection. This may relate to the idea that sport enables what has been called ‘covert intimacy i.e. men doing things together, rather than developing a mutual intimacy (Messner, 1992).

There does appear to be some evidence that football might be a potentially useful mechanism for health and welfare programmes to utilise. Echoing Durkheims insights, some have argued that football serves important societal functions by uniting individuals and communities and preventing social isolation, even suggesting that football might actually prevent suicide (Kuper and Szymanski, 2009, p.257). Some have argued that in post-

industrial societies, like England, which are unusually rootlessiii (Kuper and Szymanski,
2009, p.253) people are attracted to the idea of belonging, loyalty, fandom, authenticity, connectedness. Because of its uniting effect, and especially during big tournaments, football is seen as giving individuals’ meaning and common purpose, bringing people together who may be isolated, especially those who find social interaction and intimacy difficult. This is the flip-side to the other phenomenon Durkheim noted, that suicide often decreases during war. In this way it has been argued that other than sport, only war and catastrophe can create this sort of national unity (Kuper and Szymanski, 2009, 269)
Moreover, feedback on these initiatives by men is usually positive (e.g. Smith and Pringle,
2010). Research has suggested, for example, that football can help disenfranchised men (such as those labelled with serious mental illness) by providing opportunities for them to create more positive and less stigmatised identities (Carless and Douglas, 2008). The emotional connection many men have with football and its ‘action orientated mode appears to enable some men to feel safer engaging with these initiatives, and the solidarity and collectivism of football appears to provide a buffer against isolation.
Some social critics, however, have called for caution in too readily assuming that football can be used uncritically as a vehicle to promote socially progressive aims (see, for example, Coakley, 2002; Kelly, 2010; Robertson, 2003; Flood, 2002b). Whilst it is logical to use traditional masculine’ spaces and practices to engage men who are embedded within masculinised social relations, it can potentially generate a set of contradictions, especially if these very social relations are not sufficiently acknowledged or theorised. Instances of football hooliganism and some violent ultra right wing political fan bases illustrate in an extreme way the need for caution against an overly positive appraisal of the possibilities

offered by football, especially in a context of gendered social relationsiv. Therefore, the

following section looks in more detail at the role of football in reproducing unequal gender relations.

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