Education key to football's battles
Despite being in the early throes of 2012, PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle is a man determined to achieve his goals this year. The main one - ironic for a man known as the cleverest footballer around after his appearance on quiz show Countdown - seems to be focused on education.
Having already spoken at length about the Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra affair, his idea involved prevention rather than castigation. Evidently that mentality remains just over a month later, as he says: "There's an element of ignorance, that's why we promote education."
With a spate of incidents involving racism recently, those in the game are fighting a constant battle and Carlisle adds: "Until everyone is identical you will always have minority pockets of people that adopt racist attitudes. The battle is to make sure the numbers of that group dwindle year on year."
As important an issue as racism is, Carlisle is keen to digress and explain some of the other areas he hopes to work on, including mental health. Regularly cited as football's big taboo, players that have suffered from it are often wary of coming forward - most likely due to a fear of cruel mockery from the terraces. That's where Carlisle believes a stern approach must be taken.
"This is one area that is the top of our list in terms of stepping out and breaking down barriers," he says. "We need to step up our campaigns on a national and international basis so that those types of responses [from fans] are few and far between and when they do occur, they incur the wrath and incredulity that is attributed to instances of discrimination or racism."
Carlisle is also keen to stress that, despite a perceived life of luxury, sports stars are not immune to mental health problems. In simple terms, financial wealth does not guarantee mental stability - a view that many struggle to grasp. Indeed, for discussion on mental health to progress it requires brave speakers to venture forward, something he appreciates is a difficult ask.
"We need some people like myself and let's say Neil Lennon, who have encountered these problems to be brave enough to step forward and remove the anonymity and the taboos," he says. "To explain to all professionals that this happens throughout the game - in the lower leagues with people like myself, right up to European and international football with someone like Neil Lennon. These players need to know that if that happens you have the help and support you need and require."
With Carlisle happy to acknowledge the PFA's role in helping its members overcome the complexities of mental health, he insists clubs must also play a part.
"There is a large onus on football clubs to support their players," he says. "It's two-fold for clubs, not only do they have the duty of care but they will also be nurturing their asset to maximize his ability every week. It's within their best interest. I think with the continental influences entering the Premier League, we are starting to see a value added to looking after a player both physically and mentally."
A prominent figure in the media, having appeared on BBC's Question Time, Carlisle believes the problems football faces are wider than just the sport. "It's about changing attitudes and levels of acceptability," he says.
His strategies are generational; change must begin with the youngest minds. A key part is played by the schools and youth clubs who can teach the children of today what is acceptable. But it is not about targeting the individual.
"I don't believe it's about isolating the idiots" he says. "Isolating the incidents of discrimination is the battlefront of the attack but educating everyone is where the long term battle is won."
He also has ideas for another prominent issue within the game: technology. Given how frequently referees have become a point of discussion, the Preston defender suggests that any piece of technology that can enhance the game must surely be introduced.
"We are seeing on a weekly basis the media using technology to sensationalise issues," he says. "It is to the detriment of our game, and the players, when the outcome of matches is decided on an instance that would only take 10 seconds to call correctly. I'm not saying it should be used for every incident, but it needs to be to be introduced to maintain the integrity and enthusiasm for the game."
Now 32, it is fair to say Carlisle may only have a handful of years left in the professional game. When he does decide to retire, his position with the PFA will also be relinquished - it is a prerequisite that the chairman of the PFA also holds a playing contract, a rule that the current holder feels is vitally important.
"Sympathy for a situation is one thing, but empathy takes it to another level," he says. "It's a lot easier for players to speak to someone still in the game that has that awareness, than someone who retired even as recently as five years ago."
Despite his confident persona and eloquent rhetoric, the defender admits he even questions himself on occasion, but explains that while he may not have all the answers he is always willing to try and help. "I leave my phone on 24 hours a day," he admits. "I try to give out my number to as many players as possible, under the idea that if I can't help them I'll strive to find the right person who can."
With all that said, he is not immune to criticism. Branded a pseudo-intellectual, some believe his clever articulation is a facade to make himself appear more intelligent. His riposte is simple, as he laughs: "I've never professed to be intellectual. I don't see why trying to better yourself is a bad thing."