- Written by Switch the Play Foundation
Lucy’s area of research is sport and crime, particularly the journeys of those athletes who commit criminal offences. For athletes who have committed crime, this voice is essential if future criminal activity is to be prevented.
Elite athletes experience unique ‘highs’ and euphoric moments. Most will aspire to find their ‘dream job’, some find it and some do not. Being an elite athlete presents challenges that other people do not experience. For some sportspeople, autonomy is taken away and their lifestyle controlled. Just what effect does this have on those who give their life to sport? And could crime be an outcome of the rollercoaster of emotions unique to sport?
Lucy Sheppard-Marks, a former international hockey player for Wales, wished to answer this question by exploring the experiences of athletes who commit a crime. With a master’s degree in criminology from Loughborough University and a career serving in the military, this was a fitting topic to begin her PhD. Through interviewing athletes that had committed a crime, Lucy was able to unpack some of the reasons that sportspeople may engage in criminal activity.
“We look at athletes and assume they're having a great time because they're achieving their dream, but the reality of their dream may be really constrictive. What I found with a few of the athletes was that they felt the restrictions so heavily that they no longer enjoyed their sport.
“People commit crime when they no longer feel a part of something. If you sever those connections through a career termination, that individual is now vulnerable because they don't fit anywhere, so they don't have that sense of self and don’t necessarily fit in the community that they're a part of. Transition is one of the themes that came through in the research.
“For some, there's an incident, or there's a point where it changes how you view yourself or your moral compass slips and if you start to deconstruct all the things that happened to you, it may be because of your sport. And then for sport to not support somebody through that is a problem.
“I would never want to be quoted as saying sport causes crime, but we have to look at every case individually, and try to understand that there is for some people, a contributing factor and that may be their sport.”
Lucy goes on to describe the variety of consequences for athletes that may go on to commit crime and how it can affect athletes in a whole host of ways, impacting every aspect of their lives.
“For some it meant they weren't allowed to compete, for some it meant prison, which meant the end of a career. When you spend six years in prison your sport isn't going to be waiting for you when you come back out again, and massively impacts on relationships with their family, mental health, on their self-worth and of course produces that feeling of guilt.”
Supporting sportspeople to ensure the risk is managed appropriately is crucial. Regardless of the fact that an individual has committed a crime, sporting organisations have a responsibility to support their athletes through this transition and prioritise their mental health in the way they would for any other athlete.
“We need to be aware of the mental health of people who have committed a crime. They may have affected the sport because they might have drawn negative publicity, but they still need to have their mental health taken care of. It's no different, it's a transition. It's a transition out of something. It's not a nice one, but it is one. We would support an athlete if they were injured, or if they weren't connected. Some might say that they have brought it on themselves, but this isn’t always necessarily the case – when you track it back, as there's always something that causes it.”
“The worst thing to do is to turn your back on that athlete because they're already dealing with enough. They're already dealing with the actual logistics of what they've done, the emotions that come with that and the fact they let a lot of people down. The worst thing that can happen is for a sport to stop that level of support.”
“We need to understand that someone has done a bad thing, but they're not a bad person. I am trying to educate people that people commit crimes for all sorts of reasons, but very rarely is it because they woke up one day and they wanted be a bad person. It just doesn't work like that.
We also must be so careful with the language we use. The language used within deselection and how that can shape how somebody sees themselves."
“We have to acknowledge that when athletes retire, they will seek their ‘high’ somewhere else. And if that is crime, or if that is drugs, we need to be aware of that. If an athlete stops doing their sport, what are they going to fill it with?
“What kind of world are you sending them back into when their dream has either come to its time, or it has not been achieved. Or they will come away from their sport with a huge amount of anger, strain or regret. You have to get to know the individual.”
Lucy gave one key takeaway from her thought-provoking research into athletes who commit crime.
“Support people that have made the wrong choice and try to understand what that might be.
It could be because of their sport but it could be because of something else and no one person is the same as the next person.”
Perhaps, highlighting the options that retiring athletes have in terms of a career post-sport could save athletes from seeking their high in less favourable places.