Ernie Benbow is one of the co-founders of State of Mind Sport and played a crucial role in the development of State of Mind and helping State of Mind Sport become a charity
Ernie has reflected on why he got involved 10 years ago
I was Secretary of the Wigan RL Past Players Association at the time of Terry’s sad and untimely death. I was also a long standing season ticket holder and shareholder or Wigan RL. I was almost compelled to raise issues of concern not only in relation to that role but also given my background as a Board level Human Resource Director in the NHS and Fellow of my professional body, responsible for policy matters and strategic direction.
It was an attempt in writing my article to seek to destigmatise mental health and emotional problems.
Ernie Handing over a State of Mind tee shirt to Nick Clegg Deputy Prime Minister at the time at the launch of the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation
I was conscious that regardless of the sport, the welfare of sportspeople had become more important than ever. As sports have increased in popularity and value, the demands placed upon athletes had also increased. Although the riches now available in sport have never been so high, the level of service and support offered to those athletes had not risen in accordance; this was never more apparent than in rugby league.
This situation was, and still is to a large degree, magnified in our sport and especially Super League. The pressures off the field for players within Super League are more akin to the average worker than the far richer cousins in other team sports in the UK, such as football, rugby union and cricket.
The average wage of the top stars in those sports far exceeds the average wage earned by players within Super League. Although the rewards on offer in football’s Premier League outstrip employees in every facet of working life, even the earnings on offer in rugby union’s Premiership are triple those on offer in Super League.
Consequently, the outside influences that affect the average working person are not alleviated by wealth in this sport. This is not to say that the pressures on the field are any less. The physical strains placed upon Super League players and the pressures of winning are maintained as highly as any sport in this country. When the financial pressures off the field are allied to the physical pressures on the field, this creates a maelstrom of stress that is unique to Super League.
The reality of life as a rugby league player is far removed from the glitz and glamour of 2 hours in front of the television cameras on Friday night. Many hours are spent in physical training sessions, in lifting weights in the gym, in freezing ice baths or cryo chambers, in video sessions. The physical demands of this brutal sport are immense and each and every player will experience the intense pain of injury at some point in their career.
Then there is the psychological toll that the sport takes. Not only do the players bear the weight of their own worries and pride, but they also are burdened with the concerns of their families, aspirations of their club and the hopes and dreams of their supporters. It is a heavy weight to bear and one that I was, and still am, not envious of.
Yet this was all the players knew and it is what we expected of them, rightly or wrongly. Yes, there are rewards but we all should recognise the sacrifices they make. I am not sure that all of us fully appreciated what happened when the lights go out!! What happens when time says enough is enough? The answer is: Not Enough. I think much has changed for the better but there is still scope for further change.
After years of dedication to being the best in a career played out in the media spotlight, adapting to retirement can be an extreme challenge for the toughest of athletes. The sudden transition to a more mundane life poses a sea-change for body and mind. Unfortunately, we were not yet in a culture which readily embraced – much less understood – the problems change and retirement can cause for sport stars. When British boxer, Frank Bruno, found himself experiencing mental health difficulties the national press were not sympathetic.
It was no wonder that former athletes were so reluctant to disclose mental health issues when, in the 21st century, the media deemed it acceptable to publicly ridicule and stigmatise mental ill-health.
I wanted to get these points across and felt I MUST write. Part of my thinking was that there may well be other like-minded individuals out there who were also willing to share their views and perhaps attempt, however great or small, to do something to raise awareness and effect some change.
It was my clear view that it was, and still is, the responsibility of the governing body, the clubs and the players, individually and collectively, to help alleviate those strains, so that the delicate balance between standards on the field and happiness off the field is maintained. The top and bottom of it all was that I set out to do something positive and effect some change and make a difference which I believe we all did.
I remember contacting Brian Carney one Sunday evening after our very first meeting. I spoke to him whilst he was in a pub in Dublin. He wanted to join in without hesitation and brought Terry O’Connor with him to the next meeting.