Racist harassment on the pitch by so-called fans, games abandoned because of homophobic insults from players on the other side of the pitch and many years of depression because the dream of a professional career has come to an end: the scenes you see in ‘Rio Ferdinand's Tipping Point’ are by no means pleasant. But unfortunately, they are the bitter and ugly reality of professional football.
In the new three-part documentary, which aired on Amazon Prime on November 11, Ferdinand deals with three social challenges that are a recurring topic in professional football: racism, sexuality, and mental health. Some of these are topics Ferdinand has first-hand experience of and others are completely new to him.
A ‘tipping point’ is ‘the time at which a change or an effect cannot be stopped.’ In professional sport, such tipping points are frequent, on and off the pitch. And it is scenes like these that are the focus of the documentary and show that there is still a lot to be worked on in professional sport.
Tipping points in football – on and off the pitch
In the final match of UEFA EURO 2021, England players faced one of the toughest mental tests in football, a penalty shootout, as they faced Italy, with the winner being crowned European Champions. Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, among others, were given the responsibility to take a penalty, with all three of the players missing their spot-kicks.
The after-math of the misses saw the players blamed personally for the defeat and racially insulted on social media. The nature and extent of the harassment reached unprecedented levels and also shifted to the streets.
It is scenes like these that Rio Ferdinand can also recount. He, too, has been the target of racist hostility and talks about it in his documentary with victims like Adebayo Akinfenwa. Akinfenwa details how he has received an astounding amount of hate and racial abuse on social media and complains about the lack of power in the face of racist messages and comments. Often the insults remain without consequences, and the offenders are not prosecuted and punished. A major responsibility also lies with the platforms, who many argue, undertake far too little action against hate speech and put profit before people.
Those responsible at the English FA and UEFA, with whom Rio also speaks to in the documentary-series, feel powerless: ‘Sadly, we don't have the power for everything.’ By contrast, if you look to America, black athletes are defended by their sporting associations, Rio laments. Associations, such as the NBA, set the example by, for instance, cancelling the play-offs two years ago.
‘Sadly, we don't have the power for everything.’
The English Football Association
There have also been match cancellations in the past due to homophobic insults - an issue that Rio has not been confronted with, but remains a harsh reality. So far, only one out of 130,000 active professional players has come out as homosexual. Leading Ferdinand to feel that footballers are still not free to express their sexual orientation. It seems that sexuality is still a major taboo topic.
For Rio, this is new territory that he has not yet entered. That's why he embarks on a journey and learns more about sexuality. He learns why professional footballers like Thomas Hitzlsperger only came out about their homosexuality after their careers had ended. He meets LGBTQ groups and familiarizes himself with the correct use of language. The documentary shows that Rio was part of the system that made it difficult for football players to openly live out their sexual orientation.
Facts from the documentary
percent of internet hate was directed at three players in the Premier League in the 2019/2020 season
active professional footballer has come out during his career
players aged 8-18 are released from academy football per year
A problem that only a few people know about so far - except for those affected themselves
Years of suppressing one's sexuality can lead to significant psychological problems; another problem that still receives too little attention in professional football, yet it remains present.
Young people struggle and work hard for years to fulfill their dream of a professional football career. The fact that only a small percentage of them make it increases the pressure and strain: every season, 11,000 junior players between the ages of 8 and 18 are released from football academies. Despite hard training, they are not prepared for this moment.
Showing weakness or fear is frowned upon in football. Rio has long believed this to be the case, and says he thought it was a weakness to confide in a therapist. Throughout the course of the documentary, he is proven wrong and learns about the challenges faced by aspiring, active and former football players. After all, 80% of footballers suffer from anxiety after being dismissed from the football academy. Many cannot withstand the pressure of the public, family, and each other – even 25 years after leaving the academy.
Rio finds that mental health problems are not addressed openly enough in football: ‘The culture is not to talk. The culture in the dressing room is that we are all a team, all hard. Every emotional weakness, get out.’
Affected players are therefore calling for an obligation for football clubs to take a broader approach at mental health and to take precautions.
‘Rio Ferdinand's Tipping Point’ is a journey to the dark side of football. Not enough is happening to stamp out racism, to accept the open expression of one's sexuality and to be able to turn to someone with mental health problems. But the documentary also gives courage and shows that things are already moving in the right direction. For Rio Ferdinand, it was an educational and exciting journey. He is aware that a lot still needs to happen.