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The adultification of Luke Littler — safeguarding young sports stars against the dark side of fame

AuthorsOliver LeggeCarys KeebleWill Ford

The adultification of Luke Littler safeguarding young sports stars against the dark side of fame

Luke Littler has fast become a household name. Yet while shooting to fame as a teenager is something that many young sports fans can only dream of, the resulting attention comes with a dark side and calls into question whether enough is done to protect our stars from the dangers of the media and public eye.

Here, Trainee Solicitors Oliver Legge, Carys Keeble and Will Ford explore how adultification has affected Littler’s treatment and outline what more should be done to improve safeguarding for young sportspeople.

 

Inspiring the younger generation

With 4.8 million viewers — Sky Sports’ largest ever non-football audience — tuning in to watch the 2024 World Darts Championship (WDC) final on 3 January, Luke ‘the Nuke’ Littler has fast become one of sports’ most famous names and faces despite being just 16 years old.

As the WDC’s youngest ever finalist, Littler was the subject of ferocious media attention throughout the tournament. Aside from bringing fame and fortune to athletes, spectacles like Littler’s WDC run can inspire the younger generation to take up a new sport — especially one as accessible as darts — and subsequently attract more commercial sponsorship, helping to ensure a bright future for the sport itself.

 

The dark side of media attention

Yet while most of the coverage was overwhelmingly positive, there were exceptions, bringing issues around adultification, body image and mental health to the fore.

Social media platforms have been rife with memes centring on Littler’s appearance. There have (jokingly) been calls for Littler to present his birth certificate to the media and an alleged photo of his birth certificate was even leaked. This level of intrusion is common in the sporting world, where minors can lack protection from the scrutiny and badgering nature of the media and public.

Littler admits that recent media attention did “get a bit too much” and that some “horrible things” were written in coverage, which often extended past the oche into his personal life. From his post-match meal choices to a photograph of him holding a copy of the Sun newspaper — which resulted in the 16-year-old issuing a public apology — it’s easy to forget that just six months earlier, Littler was sitting his GCSEs.

The mother of Littler’s girlfriend has spoken out about the language used to describe her as ‘money-grabbing’ and public opinion polls have commented on the difference in their ages. Towards any other 16-year-old, such behaviour would be considered absolutely unacceptable — so why is it different for young sports stars?

Former WDC winner Gary Anderson has claimed that the media "absolutely destroyed" Josh Rock — another promising darts star — and emphasised the danger for Littler to go a similar way. Anderson said that media influence has ruined many young players’ careers by piling on the pressure and taking the focus away from their training and passion.

Unfortunately, Littler isn’t alone. Wayne Rooney similarly shot into the limelight at 16 and has rarely been able to remove himself from the public eye since. Subjected to regular abuse from fans and publicly suffering several damaging revelations about his private life, Rooney also had an aesthetic and level of success that makes him seem older than he was.

 

Adultification

According to High Speed Training, “adultification is a type of bias which skews the perception of certain children, leading to others — including professionals — viewing them as more ‘grown up’… This can lead to lapses in appropriate safeguarding’they are viewed as either responsible in some way, or as more resilient and able to withstand maltreatment’.

This is a huge concern and has led to inappropriate comments such as those made by Joe Brolly in his Sunday Independent column that Littler is “the only person in history born with a beer belly, a ‘Mum’ tattoo and three kids. The young chap looks as though he was created in a laboratory by a mad scientist using DNA from Phil Taylor and a buxom barmaid. If you bought a Lego set called ‘Darts Player’ and assembled it, you would get Luke Littler."

Littler is still a child. Teenagers are highly susceptible to being negatively affected by body shaming — and this is hugely amplified by public spotlight. As Gary Anderson says, “let the boy play darts”. The pressure of elite level competition is stressful enough without having to deal with what is essentially public bullying.

 

How does public pressure affect young sportspeople?

The level of pressure imposed on young sports stars can be detrimental to their health and performance. In a study by The Islamic Azad University in Iran, two hundred football players were surveyed on the topic of media pressure, with 75% confirming that the media created additional stress pressures.

Comparisons can also be made between Littler and Emma Raducanu, who in 2021 won the US Open at just 18 years of age. After her remarkable grand slam win, she was hailed as the next biggest star in tennis and endorsed by a number of luxury brands. Since then, she has suffered numerous injuries, resulting in her inability to match the levels she reached in 2021 on the court. This has led to criticism in the media by the likes of Piers Morgan, and Raducanu has warned of the struggles that can come from the full glare of the limelight, particularly when so young. Littler has expressed that he “just can’t get away from the media — every game I win they want to talk to me. I do like it, but it does get a bit too much.” Hugo Jafari (Head of Ignite Sports Management) warned that there is always a tendency in the UK to “build people up and then knock them down.”

Littler has been selected by the PDC to play Premier League Darts this year and concerns have already been raised by those within the sport. James Wade (the 2009 Premier League Darts winner) has expressed concern over the toll that playing in the Premier League — a “lonely and tiring roadshow” — could take on Littler as he plays in 16 cities across 16 consecutive weeks from February to May.

 

What’s being done to improve safeguarding for young sports stars?

With mental health issues continuing to pervade mainstream consciousness, questions are being raised as to how the mental wellbeing of young athletes will be safeguarded.

A 2017 report — written on invitation of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) made a strong argument in support of the ethical case for prioritising long-term athlete welfare and since its publication sporting bodies such as the Premier League have placed a greater emphasis on safeguarding the mental wellbeing of their athletes. In recent years, we have seen a more open discussion around mental health in darts, especially following Luke ‘Cool Hand’ Humphries’ panic attack at the oche in 2019, which led to him considering quitting the sport.

PDPA (Professional Darts Players Association) members now have free access to SportingChance, which provides mental health assistance for professional sportspeople. Yet more could be done to protect people earlier on, rather than providing assistance once their wellbeing has taken a turn for the worst. Snooker maestro Ronnie O’Sullivan — who has also been open about his own struggles with mental health in the past — has urged Littler to surround himself with a trustworthy mentor.

With sporting bodies benefitting from the attention that follows stars like Littler, there must be a responsibility to protect their physical and mental health.

PDC (Professional Darts Corporation) Chief Executive Matt Porter has acknowledged the ‘huge duty of care’ owed to Littler and stated that he will ensure Littler's wellbeing and welfare as his career progresses. The PDC’s plan involves potentially reducing Littler’s schedule at the end of the Premier League Darts tour in May, while also working closely with nutritionists and providing psychological support. This move is extremely welcome and shows that national governing bodies are recognising the importance of protecting their professionals. It certainly seems that media training, mental health assistance and a greater appreciation from the media of Littler’s age and vulnerability would significantly help him to continue achieving success at the highest levels of the sport — bringing even more eyes to the oche.

It’s important that sporting organisations and governing bodies review their conduct and consider whether they have appropriate frameworks in place to exercise their duty of care. Investing in education is one way to help younger athletes develop the mental and emotional resilience that will be required throughout their careers. An example of this is the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Program, which aims to provide academy players with ‘life skills’.

 

Can we tackle the culture of ignorance?

The importance of safeguarding all athletes is clear. With the beneficial impact that the media’s influence can have on sporting stars — including lucrative sponsorship deals and globalised brand identity — athlete welfare can often fall to the wayside.

This can be seen plainly through the online and media abuse levelled at the likes of Rooney, Raducanu and more recently, Littler. Such abuse isn’t limited to rising stars, as we have seen with the vile treatment of female football referees, as well as the England men’s football team following their Euro 2020 final defeat. This speaks to a culture of ignorance around the effects that such treatment can have — a combination of education and stringent legislation could help to tackle these issues.

While legislation has been slow to adapt to changing trends, there are safeguards that young athletes can use to protect themselves. The Online Safety Act 2023 includes provisions relating to any written material involving harassment, which extends to social media sites and online articles that focus on athletes' personal lives.

Those throughout the sport industry and on national governing boards should conduct appropriate risk assessments and seek legal advice if any material published relating to young athletes poses a danger to their mental or physical wellbeing.

 

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