What should we do with a drunken footballer?

Andrew Misell | February 2019 | 6 minutes

Pretty much everyone had something to say about Wayne Rooney’s arrest at Dulles Airport, after he arrived intoxicated and allegedly set off an alarm and swore at airport officials - but is the way that the media talks about celebrities' drinking helpful?

The Mirror called it his ‘booze shame’. The Sun labelled him ‘boozy Roo’. Other papers were more restrained in their language but still went big on a less-than-flattering police mug-shot.

It’s fairly clear that Rooney crossed a line. He possibly didn’t cross it very far, given the decision to charge him with a ‘minor misdemeanour’ and fine him just $25. Nonetheless, it was a pretty stupid way to behave, as I suspect he himself would be the first to admit.

It certainly wasn’t the sort of thing you’d want your kids to see from one of their footballing heroes. And it went down particularly badly in the States, where the former England international now plays, and where big-name sports stars are expected to set a good example.

Overall, it wasn’t good news for anyone. Except that it was. It was marvellous news for some sections of the British media, who know they can sell more papers and get more online clicks with stories of celebrities’ alcohol-fuelled falls from grace. Just like in March last year, when we were treated to close-ups of the haggard and dishevelled Ant McPartlin after he had what the Daily Mail described as a ‘drink drive smash’ whilst ‘driving like a maniac’.

It wasn’t good news for anyone. Except that it was. It was marvellous news for some sections of the British media, who know they can sell more papers and get more online clicks with stories of celebrities’ alcohol-fuelled falls from grace

The reality behind these kinds of headlines is somewhat less dramatic, and much more complicated. What both Wayne Rooney and Ant McPartlin have in common, as well as their very public offences, is a difficult relationship with what some have called 'Britain’s favourite coping mechanism' – alcohol. At the time of his arrest in America, Rooney was already banned from driving in the UK for two years. McPartlin’s alcohol issues have been equally well-documented – although up until 2018 some journalists seemed keen to laugh them off. At the wedding of Frank Lampard and Christine Bleakley in 2015, the Mail reported that McPartlin ‘displayed the signs of a good night’ as he ‘stumbled out of the venue… looking a little worse for wear’.

The reality behind these kinds of headlines is somewhat less dramatic, and much more complicated.

To be fair to the tabloids, they didn’t start this way of talking about drinking – of treating it all as a bit of fun, until it’s not. It’s a very handy way for a lot of us to talk about alcohol without thinking about it at all.

Alcohol has, quite rightly, been described as ‘the ambiguous molecule’. It’s a simple chemical, made from sugar, that can wreak havoc in the complex tangle of our brains. If it were discovered or invented tomorrow, you’d never be allowed to sell it. But many of us love it, and all of us have to live with its effects in one way or another. And the truth is that a society, like ours, that uses alcohol to feel at ease, is going to experience a certain amount of alcohol problems.

It’s not that alcohol is always problematic. It’s just that it always has the potential to be so, for all of us. All of us who drink have the potential to find ourselves ‘looking a little worse for wear’. Most of us have probably experienced a certain amount of ‘booze shame’ from time to time. And for some of us alcohol will become a real struggle, which we need support to overcome. Which is why it’s high time for all of us (including the Sun, the Mirror, the Mail and anyone else) to ditch this sensationalist, pseudo-moral language and start talking honestly about why we drink and what happens when we do.