Footballers may present a higher rate of depression and burnout than the general population. Yet Connor Tobin, professional soccer player and co-founder and executive director of the United Football League Players Associationsays professional football lacks resources to support players’ mental health.
Tobin sat down with MobiHealthNews to discuss how the USLPA aims to help players through a new partnership with telehealth company Onrise, a platform offering a telehealth care program and support tailored to athletes.
MobiHealthNews: Can you tell me about the USLPA and Onrise partnership, and how it will help USL Championship and League 1 players?
Connor Tobin: We have engaged Onrise to come and provide a full range of mental health services to our players. Essentially, this means players will have access, in many cases for the first time, to any kind of sanity resource.
It’s totally anonymous for the clubs, anonymous for the PA [players association], and is there solely for the benefit of the player. They can access the system at any time and, you know, in terms of care, it can be elevated all the way up to licensed clinical therapists all the way up to psychiatric doctors, depending on the need and the situation they’re working on. East.
MNH: How will access to mental health care via telehealth affect athletes, not just as players, but as people?
Discard: The second part is the most important because we worry about them as people. You know, if you’re not good as a person, the player side is very difficult. Often, athletes, you are considered to be supposed to be mentally strong. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things happening in your life on or off the pitch that could affect you.
I think of another important thing, in terms of that and why it’s so important, often when people think of professional athletes, they think of the highest level of the game. Well, there are other players who are at the other end of the spectrum.
So what services are there to really support them? Especially when players often live hand to mouth. There are other pressures that are, I guess, “different” is the word I’ll use then, you know, if you play in the NBA or something. So just because these challenges are different doesn’t mean you don’t need support.
MNH: How are the challenges different between footballers and NBA athletes, for example?
Discard: Yeah, I think you can just start financially. Our players, while we have CBAs [Collective Bargaining Agreements] now in both leagues for the first time, the standard contract length is only ten months. You are therefore dealing with off-seasons where you are not paid.
Particularly at this end of the sport, there isn’t a ton of security. So you don’t have tons of players on a guaranteed five- or seven-year contract. Often you are only guaranteed for that season. We are therefore experiencing situations where the turnover of players can reach 60% from one year to the next in a given club.
We have guys who are between 15 and 16 years old and up to 39 years old. So there’s a whole range of challenges that could exist within that. We also have a significant portion of our pool of players who are foreign. So dealing with the challenges of coming from another place in the world to here and acclimatizing, whether it’s the language, the culture, the basics, even the stress around how I go to the grocery store? How do I get transportation and things like that? So there’s an absolute range of things players could go through.
MNH: Will Onrise be available year-round, even during the off-season?
Discard: One of the things that has become very interesting from a PA perspective… Let’s say you get mental health resources through the club or a league you play with, right? Well, if your contract ends or you change teams, you lose continuity of care. By hosting this under the Players Association and moving from Club A to Club B, we can have continuity of care.
This partnership extends until a player completes a contract. There’s a kind of grace period because sometimes that’s when their biggest challenge is.
MNH: Why did the USLPA choose a telemedicine company to provide this offer?
Discard: It has to do with the league’s footprint. In both leagues, Championship and League One, we currently have 36 clubs. We span from coast to coast. So in terms of a supplier, we needed someone who could reach a lot of different places. It’s the first piece.
The second piece, often with professional athletes, especially during the season, is something your schedule can be so varied. Every day there is something that can be moved. So you need something flexible in terms of player access.
And then the last piece…it’s also a matter of cost. At this end of the sport, players don’t make a ton of money, which means, you know, from an AP perspective, there’s not a ton of money to operate.
We are a relatively new organization. How do you do that? So I think when you think about telehealth and some of its capabilities, it’s possible to reduce the cost of delivering care.
MNH: Want to add something we haven’t covered?
Discard: Particularly in American football, and this is unique, because we exist in a global game, there’s been a lot of development in sports in the United States, and you often hear in sports, “We invest in players . So we’ give more resources”.
And really, what it’s about is that we’re trying to develop a player, so hey, maybe he’ll be the next person we sell to Manchester United. We recover our investment. Personally, and I think our players’ association thinks that’s really the wrong question. If you want to invest in players, you should be talking about investing in people, because 100% of what you live lives between that [points to his head]and you bring it to your workplace every day.
So if you want to be successful in advancing your career, if you really want to become an asset that the club can capitalize on, you have to invest in the person, and in the whole pyramid of American football, there’s not enough . But especially at the level where we exist, it [has]for lack of a better word, been completely barren.