When jokes are not funny – Humour and abuse in elite sport

Keywords: professional elite sport, English Premier League football, banter, abuse, workplace humour


Joking and humour are central to the daily lives and lived experiences of professional elite athletes (Hickey, 2016; Roderick, 2006). Traditionally within sport, such discourses have been accepted as back and forth joking between teammates, athletes, and coaches, and should not be taken seriously by either the recipient or antagonist (Magrath, 2016). Although joking relations are widely assumed to be harmless (Plester, 2016), their characteristics and constant presence in the lives of professional and elite athletes share unmistakable similarities to forms of abuse (Jacobs et al., 2017; Mountjoy et al., 2016).

Professional sport is an environment in which abuse is often present and condoned. More recently, the different forms of abuse that athletes are, and have been, exposed to have become more widely known (McMahon & McGannon, 2019). Examining professional football specifically, abusive practices are traditionally accepted and positioned as part of the cultural norms within footballing work environments (Kelly & Waddington, 2006). As part of their lived experiences in these environments, professional players both participate in and are the recipients of such abuse.

Data were collected from 10 male participants (aged 18–30) by means of qualitative semi-structured vignette interviews. Each participant was interviewed on three separate occasions (30 interviews). The data and subsequent analysis illustrate how banter is an accepted and legitimised discourse within professional football, but promotes considerable anxiety, stress and unhappiness in work environments.

Utilising a theoretical framework that combines elements of Goffman’s (1959) Dramaturgy with notions of Possible Selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986), this investigation illustrates the impact of such abuse on English Premier League players. It illustrates how joking and humour, is better understood as a form of psychological emotional abuse, that it is normalised as workplace putdown humour and carries with it many elements that players find marginalising, deliberate and threatening to their identities and sense of professional security.

This research offers a new critical perspective that provides a better understanding of the distinctive and intricate social discourses in the daily lives of professional footballers. Its findings offer insights that will prove helpful to officials, team managers and other relevant stakeholders involved in player care and athlete well-being.


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How to Cite
Hickey, C. (2023). When jokes are not funny – Humour and abuse in elite sport. Current Issues in Sport Science (CISS), 8(2), 074. https://doi.org/10.36950/2023.2ciss074