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Depression and Sport: A Chance for Change

Last Sunday afternoon will be remembered by football fans as one of those very seldom days where the sport we watch is properly put into perspective. The news of the death of Gary Speed at the age of 42 was shocking; the news that it was suicide made it utterly incomprehensible. A lot of fans will have watched Football Focus on BBC only 24 hours before to see Speed talking succinctly about various football matters. Others would have seen the joy in the Wales manager’s face following their 4-1 thrashing of Norway only weeks ago as his national side had now jumped from 117th in the FIFA rankings to 45th during his brief tenure. The future was bright. It still is bright for Wales, viagra but heartbreakingly, the instigator is gone.

Somewhat errily, The Guardian‘s blog ‘The Secret Footballer’ spoke about depression in football in an eye-opening piece less than 24 hours before Speed took his own life. Speaking about the new pressures brought around by modern football, the author comments how “on the one hand the rewards are vast but on the other failure, or even mediocrity, can become the barometer against which all aspects of life are measured, albeit for a minority.” By simply losing a match, a professional sportsperson can often be expected to be completely vilified by their own fans, never mind about fans of their opposition. In no other occupation are the slightest imperfections put under a microscope and analysed as they are in football today. And this happens on a weekly basis. The better footballer you are, the more analysis and more criticism can be expected. It may sound slightly pathetic and it may suit us to forget a simple fact while watching Match of the Day commenting on the uselessness of certain footballers, but footballers are people just like you and me. It doesn’t matter if they’re being paid astronomically inflated sums of money as a salary, they are subject to the same feelings or happiness, anger, sadness and, often, depression as we are.

It needs to be said that linking depression to the suicide of Gary Speed has been slightly presumptive. Although it may be an easy thing to say, the host of Football Focus, Dan Walker, commented how Speed had seemed upbeat and cracked jokes in the studio during his appearance. There is the possibility that he was extremely good at hiding his depression, however, it is unfair to simply presume he was depressed due to the nature of his death. What his death certainly has done is opened another serious conversation on depression and sport, one that had been flirted with for a while but has not fully materialized.

American football was rocked towards the end of last year when it emerged that a spate of suicides were linked to depression from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition believed to be attained from concussions and head injuries and also believed to be found at a disproportionately high level among current and former NFL players. The grimness of this story took a deeply unpleasant twist last February when former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest after leaving several texts to his closest friends and family pleading for his brain to be used for research into the disease. Depression in cricket has also received more attention than usual in recent years with Marcus Trescothick and, more recently, Michael Yardy both leaving their England set-ups abroad due to the disease. Referees and officials are also extremely susceptible, if not more susceptible, to depression; a fact which was put into the spotlight following the attempted suicide by Bundesliga referee Babak Rafati minutes before kick-off in Koln’s clash with Mainz.

There will always be those who simply don’t understand depression. Following Michael Yardy’s departure from the England cricket team at the last World Cup, Geoffrey Boycott claimed: “He must have been reading my comments about his bowling. That must have upset him because it’s obviously too much for him at this level.” Stan Collymore has also come out this week talking about his battle with depression, which serves as a reminder to the treatment he received from John Gregory, his manager at Aston Villa, who questioned the striker what he could be depressed about on the money he was on. Wherever there is a story of a sportsperson suffering from depression, these sort of ill-advised, backward and stupid comments will probably always be nearby.

Nonetheless, the Secret Footballer‘s piece in the Guardian also comments how there is an improvement in the sport with regards to manager’s actions towards depression. A realisation of the vulnerability of young players to the extreme emotions associated with football, or any other sport, has led to a little more protection from managers of such players. Indeed, the last few days has seen the Professsional Footballer’s Association circulating a handbook entitled ‘The Footballer’s Guidebook’ to 50,000 ex-players, which includes advice on how to deal with depression within the game.

While it is normally easy for governing bodies and sportspeople to act in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Gary Speed’s death by releasing statements and handbooks and proclaim that they “hope we can learn from this”, there is a genuine chance, however accidental, for the Welshman’s death to have added to the momentum of meaningful change on how depression in sport is dealt with. Let’s actually learn from this.

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