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Tackling stigma with The Diabetes Football Community

Chris Bright, JDRF UK’s Community Partnerships and Events Lead and Welsh Futsal International, talks about his new book chapter on The Diabetes Football community.

Type 1 diabetic Chris dribbling a ball past his opponent during an indoor game of football

Chris Bright, JDRF UK’s Community Partnerships and Events Lead and Welsh Futsal International, talks about his new book chapter on The Diabetes Football community. His chapter recognises the advances that have been made so that people with type 1 can play high-level sport and highlights the issues that still need tackling.

“Can I still play football?”

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1999 at the age of eight. When I was diagnosed, my very first question was “can I still play football?” Luckily, I had an exceptional diabetes nurse who gave the answer I wanted, which was “yes”. However, she readied me to expect how hard it would be to live out my dreams of playing football at the highest level.

Now, 23 years on, I have written my first academic book chapter to shed a light on a piece of research I conducted during my master’s degree programme, which focused on the type 1 community and how stigma impacts members of our Diabetes Football Community.

The research involved the analysis of online content as well as interviewing several people with type 1 who had volunteered their time to support with the project.

In sport, a ‘show-no-weakness’ culture still remains

The ‘show-no-weakness’ culture, masculinity and macho approach that’s embedded in football can really push players to hide anything that could be perceived as a weakness by fans, players, coaches or the media. This is why there are so few examples of players in professional football leagues across the globe who have come out as gay, for example. It’s perceived to go against the image of masculinity and strength within the sport so therefore must be hidden. In other parts of society that stigma is beginning to change, but in sport it still remains, and I believe that it forms the basis of why those who have type 1 diabetes, who strongly identify themselves as a footballer, still keep the fact they live with type 1 quiet.

The culture of the sport and it’s impact on health

In using secrecy as a coping mechanism for avoiding stigma, academic research has demonstrated that this may increase the likelihood of poorer self-management of type 1 and, as a consequence of this, health outcomes. This is a highly significant finding because, for the first time, I’m suggesting, with support from the research, that the culture of the sport I’ve grown up with may have a detrimental impact on my health. This is as a result of the culture within football, which depicts difference as weakness and ultimately attaches negative stigma to it.

So, with greater identification towards football, you’re more likely to hide your condition, and in hiding your condition you’re less likely to do the right things to self-manage it.

There are questions that stem from this research which could really open the door for some interesting exploration. For example, is this just as a result of football culture, traditionally with a working and middle class background? Does it differ from other team sports such as cricket or rugby, where the tradition of the game may encourage a different culture and demographic background? Could we also consider a difference between men’s football and women’s football?

Building identity with diabetes helps psychologically and socially

Although the evidence of the study suggests a significant challenge for those with type 1 diabetes accessing a sporting culture where weakness is shunned, I do think we’ve seen an opportunity in the findings to help alleviate some of that strain. It’s not all bad news!

This mechanism we’ve created through The Diabetes Football Community (TDFC) has helped to bridge the gap in identification for this population. Building identity with diabetes is important, it helps psychologically, socially and with the eventual medical outcomes for the condition.

Breaking down the stigma

This study for the first time suggests we need to create a positive affiliation to draw people to their condition and break down some of the stigma for those who find it hard to identify with their type 1 diabetes. Without that, peer support is not able to cut through to those who may need it the most.

Tackling and dispelling stigma – The Diabetes Football Community

The Diabetes Football Community tackles and dispels stigma whilst providing a positive view of our condition, which for the first time in our lives is celebrated rather than shunned. THIS is why TDFC has been successful. I knew the reasons deep down but now I’ve been able to research it and understand it from a social and cultural perspective. In the future, I really hope it can help to influence decision makers within diabetes care to look at niche populations in greater detail, and more importantly on the impact of stigma and peer support on self-management.

Read the full version of this article here.

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