Depression: Sport's toughest match of all

Written by Colette Carr.

By Colette Carr:
 
In 1999, Aston Villa striker Stan Collymore built up the courage to confess to his manager John Gregory about his battles with depression.  Gregory’s response?  “What has he got to be depressed about earning £20,000 per week?”
 
Depression is an illness that affects many of us human beings, however, what most of us forget is that our sporting heroes are at the end of the day only human too.
 
When someone is hit with depression, they almost feel ashamed of themselves. The label they immediately attach themselves to; it’s a social taboo, that’s been turned into a stigma.  In short, they begin to believe that they aren’t allowed to talk about it and are completely alone.  
 
But this is not the case.
 
Depression in fact is said to touch ten per cent of us in our lives. However, once a sportsman is feeling depressed, there is no way it is the illness.  “Adored by millions, with even more in the bank?  Surely to God he is laughing!” 
 

It's not all glamour at the top with enormous pressure on managers and players to succeed.
 
When they say it is the pressure of their work that gets them down, a man in an office argues that he is responsible for a whole entire company, yet he is mentally stable. Taking nothing away from anyone suffering, but all their mistakes and failures in the public eye must put pressure on your idol.
 
Taking into consideration also how many places a sportsman must go for work, isn’t moving house one of the most stressful things you can do? And praying that your family will settle there must worry them a fair bit. Many sporting stars have bouts of depression and feel they must hide it from the world. Depression isn’t trivial in any walk of life, but when you berate your striker for missing a sitter, did you ever consider the effect that may have on them?
 
Cricketer Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff recently took to television to explore depression in sport, in his harrowing BBC One documentary “Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side of Sport”.  In this, Freddie, who battled depression and developed a severe dependency on alcohol, spoke to many sporting heroes who know all too well the struggles and the consequences of the illness, such as football hard man Vinnie Jones, team mate Steve Harmison, boxer Barry McGuigan, and Neil Lennon amongst others.
 
While scenes were very moving as Flintoff proved to be extremely caring and understanding towards other sportsmen, there was also parts in which he described his own experiences and looked at tabloids surrounding him at his lowest point for the very first time, showing the initial reactions of reading your own negative press. This led onto a very interesting exchange between Freddie and former tabloid editor Piers Morgan. Freddie began by asking if the media reported sport responsibly to which Morgan bluntly replied “no, not really”. He believed it isn’t a great worry for sports journalists, that “sport is visceral, it’s raw, it’s live, it’s dangerous, it’s exciting, the rewards are massive and the downside is you occasionally get a headline you don’t like.” 
 
Sport and news journalists, “didn’t really care” says Morgan, and that “our view then, was that if you’re called to play for your country at sport, then it’s such an incredible privilege and honour that to actually claim to be depressed because you’re having to stay in a five star hotel while you’re playing cricket for England to me seemed ridiculous”. 
 
Note Flintoff’s behaviour during this.  While nodding along to Morgan’s answer professionally, you can see the emotions reading off his face like one of Morgan’s big, bold headlines. He is angry, offended and biting his tongue. Morgan’s solution is to, “get over it”. When it is implied that he couldn’t possibly be depressed, Flintoff bites back with “clinically you cannot be depressed?” forcing Morgan to admit he “couldn’t grasp it”. 
 
Later, Morgan claims he would take any poor headline if it meant he could “bat at Lord’s” or be “up front with Robin Van Persie”.  Freddie laughs along at his joke, but in reality he is simply laughing at his ignorance. 
 
Vinnie Jones likens the media to failed “jealous sportsmen”, and while he does realise it’s a “very unfair” statement, he is right in saying they can stoke the fire.  Maybe they do overstep the mark and unfairly judge. 
 
As a 16 year old trying to break into sports journalism as well as find her feet in the world as a whole, I feel I am straight away labelled as insensitive and cruel.  While undoubtedly the press and mass media can have a great influence in the mental deterioration of our heroes, is there possibly too much emphasis placed on this? I know I could never want to belittle someone at their lowest point.  Call me naïve and say I don’t understand how this industry works, but that’s the way I am.  The film, in my opinion, was a great success for Flintoff.  It handled the touchy subject very well as well as exposing the raw reality of it all.  And while Piers Morgan may think that they are machines, exempt from negative emotions, it shows to us that they are again only human.  As Lennon said, the brain is a sportsman’s “most important muscle.”
 
Neil Lennon is one of Scottish football’s most colourful characters. The Northern Irishman who played for and now managing Celtic has had a lot to put up with.  Probably the most known victim of sectarianism, it’s no wonder he has fallen prey to some mental demons here and there. 
 
In 2006, Neil first published his autobiography, “Man and Bhoy”, a book that The Scotsman stated, “will shock football to the core”.  When the Lurgan lad moved to Celtic he knew he would subject to some grief from the International fans, he wasn’t foolish.  Lennon was raised a Catholic in Northern Ireland and knew all too well what sectarianism really meant.  After forty caps for his National side which he proudly turned out for, he decided to retire after death threats before a game against Cyprus at Windsor Park in August 2002.  As he describes in his book, “The threat was that if I played I would get hurt.  We all knew that ‘hurt’ meant getting shot”.  A threat like that must surely be a hard pill to swallow?
 
However, Lennon had begun his battles with depression two years previous to that night in Belfast.  Lennon has throughout both his playing and managerial career at Celtic been the target of numerous sectarian attacks which have prompted responses from Michel Platini and Alex Salmond. The sad fact of it is, is that football in 21st century Scotland has become a playground for sectarian activity that should have been banished from society many moons ago.  But for Lennon, he has to wake up every morning, knowing he has a top club to manage, the possibility of a fresh threat, and above all, a family he must protect. 
 
Years ago, in an appearance on a similar programme to Flintoff’s, Lennon claimed there was a difference from feeling a bit depressed and having depression, that depression was an illness of the mind.  Despite all his troubles, Neil eloquently tackles depression, urging others in similar positions to himself to speak about it, earning praise from the PFA for his honesty and courage.  He began his recovery by speaking to friends, and has said “it is an illness which doesn’t manifest itself to the naked eye.  You can’t see it.  People who suffer from it work hard not to give it away.  It plays tricks with your mind.” 
 
“People say ‘go on holiday’,” he explains. “’Go and have a rest,’ but you take [the depression] with you.” 
 
In recent months, Lennon has admitted a few young Celtic stars have knocked on his door, seeking help. He has said that these players have had a tough time of it dealing with bouts of depression, but his door will always be open for them.  Neil Lennon has been described as controversial in past, but love him or hate him, for all he’s been through, you can’t help but respect his story.
 
On the 27th of November 2011, the world of football was rocked as news broke out that Welsh International manager Gary Speed was found hanged at his Cheshire home.  With messages of sympathy and support from football, politics and public, an enquiry was launched into the causes of his death, and why - if it was suicide - did he do so.  Was he depressed?  He had taken Wales up in the world rankings from 116th to 48th, and was developing a good, strong, young Welsh side.  Only hours before his death he appeared on “Football Focus” with Gary McAllister enthusing about his kids and talking about his golfing the next week.  “Gary was just Gary” explained McAllister who “turned to jelly” at hearing of his former teammates death. 
 
One man who wanted to answer the growing number of questions surrounding Speed’s mental health conditions was agent and best man Hayden Evans.  Evans told The Sun, “none whatsoever” when asked if his friend suffered from depression and stressed that Speed was “happily married”.  But does a sufferer not put on a brave face in public, acting like nothing’s changed because they don’t even want to admit it to themselves?  Even those closest to Gary couldn’t make sense of his actions.  And while we will possibly never know if it was depression that took one of football’s gentlemen, action was taken by the PFA to ensure there was no replay of this dark moment in our beautiful game anytime soon.
 
In response to Speed’s death, the PFA issued a 36 page handbook on dealing with depression to all 4,000 members, and was made available to 50,000 ex-players.  The book contains case studies from high profile footballers including Andy Cole, Neil Lennon, and PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle, phone numbers allowing them to talk freely and anonymously, and cartoons by Paul Trevillion showing situations which may spur depressive feelings and how to handle it.  Carlisle, who suffered from depression and alcoholism, makes reference to German keeper Robert Enke.  Enke, who played at international level, saw his depression take its toll as he committed suicide on the 10th of November, 2009.  Carlisle explains, “Football is the beautiful game. This guidebook acknowledges the pressures and it also acknowledges that professional footballers are human beings, not machines.” 
 
PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor, said on publication after Speed’s suicide, “If nothing else I hope this tragedy can encourage people who need help to not hesitate to ask for it.”  While depression is becoming easier to talk about, why has it took the death of man who may not have even been depressed for the PFA to offer some form of support?
 
Depression can seep into all walks of life, sport is no exception.  However, as soon as these personalities find themselves wrapped up in the illness, they are under scrutiny by many.  Sometimes players who have retired find themselves in the circle of depression because they don’t know anything but their sport, and millions are quick to criticise.  While there is a greater understanding now - Vinnie Jones said if he had admitted to anyone in the dressing room he’d get a clip round the ear - and people are more encouraged to talk about it.
 
With an unforgiving public, and pressure from the public eye, the sad truth of it is, sport’s battle with depression has a long way to go.
 
 
 
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