Representing Players in Sport: Bargaining for A Fair Deal for Athletes in an Olympic Year

This post was contributed by James Brown, from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

In the week that former darts champion Jocky Wilson passed away, it was fascinating to hear the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre discussion about the welfare of athletes both during and after their sporting career on 27 March 2012.

The rise and fall of Wilson is one of the more extreme that sport has known. In his eighties pomp, he was an ever-present in the latter stages of the World Championship, winning the title twice. With the sport regularly attracting 8 million views, Wilson became a folk hero with his large frame betraying the pub lineage that darts was trying so hard to leave behind. Never flash, the extent of his largesse was to splash out £1200 on new dentures following his 1982 title triumph. Yet within seven years of his second and final World Championship in 1989, Wilson was living in a council flat, aged 45, surviving on the disability benefits that were granted to him after his lifestyle brought on diabetes. When he was elected to the Darts Hall of Fame in 1996, it took a further two years for him to be informed of the honour, so far had he retreated from the game he had once dominated.

I was reminded of his story in listening to Barry McGuigan talk at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre. In managing athletes, he was keen to emphasise that they should be prepared not just for their sporting career but also for what happens after their career has ended – or if it never happens at all. By his calculation, 85% of boxers don’t make a career out of the sport, and only 5% make any real money. Television holds most of the power in the sport, because it provides most of the money. McGuigan counted five boxers in the UK who would draw an audience big enough to attract television coverage – for the rest “it is a very tough business”.

McGuigan, like Wilson, was hugely successful in the Eighties, his fights attracting huge television audiences. He became WBA Featherweight Champion and was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year, both in 1985. But his career since retiring from sport has been no less successful. A boxing pundit and commentator across most British broadcasters, he’s also had stints as a chat show host and won Hell’s Kitchen in 2007. But more importantly, and perhaps borne out of an eventually fractious relationship with his own manager, he founded the Barry McGuigan Boxing Academy in 2009. Its aim is to target people who are enthusiastic about boxing, but who have fallen out of love with education, and use the sport as a hook to get them back to learning: “It is so laudable to see students going back to college no matter how old they are – I’m into lifelong learning”.

Encouraging boxers back into education is difficult, said McGuigan. The nature of boxing in particular, where bravado is a key element of the boxer’s makeup, means that those attempting to make a career out of the sport have to believe in their ability to be the best, or that lack of confidence will soon be found out. But in doing so, trying to persuade aspiring boxers that they may not be a success can be a thankless task. And even if you do get them to college, they are naturally suspicious of spending time in class with other boxers who they may well be fighting in the ring next week.

But his Boxing Academies are helping to overturn some of that negativity. Now working with five further education colleges across the country, and there are hopes of extending the arrangement to more. “If you can invest 20% of the energy you put into sport, you can succeed in other areas of life”. It’s safe to say that, on McGuigan’s induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005, it didn’t take two years for him to find out about the honour.

Which brings us back to Jocky Wilson. “I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me,” he said in 1996. “There’s only one person to blame for the situation I’m in, and that’s me.” Here’s hoping that future sportsmen will also invest the 20% that means they won’t have to say the same thing.

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