Amid coronavirus shutdown, English players' union and clubs wary of gaming addiction risk

For many professional footballers, online gaming has helped fill the hours during the coronavirus-enforced shutdown that began in mid-March. Indeed, it has become such a common pastime that last week saw the Premier League stage the ePL Invitational -- won by Wolves forward Diogo Jota, who beat Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool in the final -- for top-flight stars to compete against each other on FIFA 20.

But in these unprecedented times, when footballers, like everyone else, are faced with the challenges of isolation, disrupted daily routines and boredom, there is concern at clubs and the players' union, the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), that a seemingly harmless pastime could serious issues.

"Unfortunately, the coronavirus situation means that players are not getting their daily fix or release, in terms of being in a competitive environment, by training every day," Jeff Whitley, a senior figure in the PFA's welfare team, told ESPN. "The PFA sent out a wellbeing survey to all of our members earlier this month and, although we have had responses already, it is too early to know the full extent of the mental health problems that may be building up right now."

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Sources have told ESPN that, as of Sunday, 258 players had responded to the April 21 survey, with 13 referencing addictive issues or depression/self-harm.

The PFA provides support and counselling for players -- current and retired -- with addictions to alcohol, gambling, sex and drugs, but problems related to video gaming are relatively new and sources told ESPN that, even before the shutdown, the PFA had been contacted by clubs concerned about the effect on their players.

"In the case of gaming, issues may only really come to the surface when players go back to work and they find they are unable to detach themselves from the gaming that has helped to sustain them throughout the lockdown," Whitley said. "If young lads are gaming from two in the afternoon until two in the morning, it is going to have an impact on their mental health.

"If they are not sleeping, their training will be affected. They will be snappy, irritable and there may be behavioural issues that will be picked up by their coaches. Family life can be affected, relationships suffer because one partner is spending half-a-day gaming and, if a wife or girlfriend leaves as a consequence of that, there will be financial implications to consider too."

Whitley is keen to point out that there are positives with playing online, but says players need to be aware of its negative aspects.

"There is a social element to it in terms of playing with and against teammates and it helps maintain a sense of competitiveness which, in ordinary times, is a daily part of a professional athlete's life," he said. "But it is all about balance. If a player has been sat down for 10-12 hours at a time, gaming with their mates, their physical fitness will suffer.

"If you don't have an understanding of addiction, things can quickly escalate, but in the case of gaming, one method to gauge your control over the situation would be to give yourself four hours of game time and then come off," he added. "If you want to find out if you have a problem, put the timer on and see how easy or difficult it is to stick to it for a long period of time, perhaps even 6-12 months.

David Meyler, the former Sunderland, Hull City and Republic of Ireland player, is considering a career in gaming having retired at the end of last season. The 30-year-old raised £10,000 for the British National Health Service earlier this month by staging a 24-hour gaming session, but has admitted it is crucial players are mindful of the time they spend on the console.

"You can 100% play alongside being a pro," Meyler told the Telegraph in March 2019. "It's really useful preparation. You could check on the strengths and weaknesses of players you are going up against, things like which foot they favour. It's brilliant research.

"But you need to find balance. I set myself limits, make sure I do things like staying hydrated and don't miss out on sleep. Plus, it's important to make family time. Since my wife told me I was spending more time with my console than my daughter, I've made sure I only play when she's not around."

Manchester City defender Kyle Walker admitted earlier this month that "Fortnite is taking up a lot of my time and probably more than it should be," while other Premier League stars such as Mesut Ozil, Harry Kane and Dele Alli have spoken publicly about their fondness for gaming.

And last season, Southampton manager Ralph Hassenhuttl revealed that he had banned WiFi from the club's training ground and team hotels, due to concerns over the time some players spend gaming; an issue he first noticed while at RB Leipzig.

"It (gaming) is something you get addicted to and that means we have to protect the players," Hassenhuttl said at a press conference. "It's something you have to force actively against and I will do this. I did it in my last club. We had also problems with players; they were playing until three o'clock in the morning before a game.

"You have to help protect them because it's not a small problem. If you are honest it's the same as alcoholism or getting addicted to drugs. To protect them means helping them not to spend so much time there."

Whitley speaks to players on a regular basis -- over the phone or via Skype or Zoom during the lockdown, and either one-on-one or in group settings during visits to clubs at all levels -- and has dealt at first-hand with the impact of addiction in professional sport.

Following a career in which he made more than 270 appearances, including 116 for Manchester City, the 41-year-old is a trained counsellor with the PFA, having fallen into a downward spiral during his playing days that began with alcohol problems and progressed to taking cocaine.

The former Northern Ireland midfielder believes that his experiences enable players with their own problems to realise they are not alone in suffering from depression, anxiety or addiction and, crucially, that there can be a way out.

"When I played, nobody would bat an eyelid if a group of players were seen drinking," Whitley said. "At some clubs, 'Super Sunday' would be the regular drinking session after games, but players won't put up with that now.

"[Today] there is also the reality that any groups of players publicly drinking together would be all over social media within seconds. It is different with gambling or gaming because that can happen with nobody else knowing."

Whereas he might have waved off the concern of a manager or staff member during his playing days, Whitley says this era's players are more aware of potential vices. In the first three months of 2020, 299 players contacted the PFA's Wellbeing Support team; a total that equates to almost half of the 653, who accessed counselling services throughout 2019 (specific details regarding the topics of concern of were not made available).

"The PFA has counsellors and experts, who are managed by Sporting Chance, available 24/7 to any player who find themselves in a difficult place, no matter what the issue, but education and awareness is crucial," Whitley said.

With the return of football still uncertain, in terms of where, when and how, the strain felt by those players waiting to resume their careers cannot be underestimated. Player awareness, as well as the vigilance of clubs and the PFA, could be vital.