Rooney: Should sports stars behave like monks in the social media age?

The storm surrounding England captain Wayne Rooney this week underlines the increasing challenges that sports stars face in the 21st century.

Rooney has suffered a drop in form this season but remains the highest paid player in English football yet his week of controversy is yet another reminder that everyone is now in the public eye 24/7.

When England won the World Cup in 1966, remember, some of the players would have enjoyed drinking as was the culture at the time.

As recently as the 1990s, plenty of players still drank regularly. Arsenal, for instance, were famed for their Tuesday Club when drinking sessions lasted for days.

The England team also caused a storm when they were filmed getting drunk ahead of Euro ’96, but they ended up reaching the semi-finals.

Arsenal captain Tony Adams, who had previously been imprisoned for drink driving, went on a seven-week drinking session after the tournament, something he spoke about at length in his harrowing autobiography ‘Addicted’.

But the advent of the Premier League and the emergence of social media and round-the-clock rolling sports news channels have changed the landscape considerably. 

Sports science is now so advanced that it can identify dips in performance that can be affected by even the slightest diversion from healthy living.

When Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal, he instigated a new regime that underlined the importance of healthy eating and good living to improve fitness and prevent injury. Many of the older players, initially sceptical of Wenger’s methods, soon credited him with extending their careers as well as helping them to win many more trophies.

The Premier League is now the most lucrative and popular football competition in the world and footballers, like athletes in pretty much every sport these days, are in the public eye and have a responsibility to their clubs, their sponsors and most importantly, the fans who pay to watch them.

The fact that Rooney joined a wedding at the England hotel and ended up ‘paralytic,’ according to guests quoted at the event, places his England career in doubt, particularly given his patchy form.

Regardless of the fact that Rooney was still in his official Football Association (FA) attire, both as a member of the squad and as the captain, he has a responsibility to set an example and not leave himself open to criticism.

His spokesman initially played down the incident before issuing a statement on Rooney’s behalf apologising for the embarrassment he had caused, but the damage had already been done.

And Rooney was not the only player who was out, with the Football Association set to investigate why so many of the squad went partying at a nightclub until the early hours as well as reviewing their own free-time policies.

Former England defender Matthew Upson explained on BBC Radio 5Live that under the strict regime of Fabio Capello, players started to go stir crazy, before the Italian urged players to go out when it was clear his methods were not as successful as he might have hoped. 

It’s all well and good to suggest, as Upson does later on, that players should be treated like adults and allowed to go out of the team hotel, but if that means ending up in a nightclub, it doesn’t suggest that, even in this day and age, players understand the importance of living life as an elite sportsperson.

Just look at Andrea Pirlo, still playing at 37, who won the World Cup with Italy and countless titles at AC Milan and Juventus. His approach to sport is the same as all Italians: the body is a temple and professionalism is vital.

And while Italians are used to going in ritiro, the isolated training camps that teams are sent to regularly, history shows that their approach has been more successful: they won the World Cup in 1982 and 2006 and reached two European Championship finals.

In an era when everyone has a smartphone, Rooney cannot have been surprised that he was pictured apparently drunk at that wedding.

Embarrassing situations can impact personal endorsements as well as professional reputation for players and their clubs and associations. 

All professional sportspeople need regular media and social media training and guidance about their off-field conduct as well as the pitfalls that await now that phones can take photographs and broadcast live from virtually anywhere.