This morning’s news of the death of Gary Speed at just forty-two years of age is too recent and too raw to pass comment upon in any detail and this particular piece is not here to speculate on the reasons why the Wales manager took, as has been suspected, the decision to take his own life, but to look at recent comments made by Stan Collymore and The Secret Footballer on the subject of depression in football. Times at which the sort of news that we have heard today are reported count amongst the genuinely horrifying, numbing moments in life. These are the moments in life which should remind us of our own mortality and our own humanity, and they should also remind us of the fact that this is merely a game, a source of entertainment. The vast majority of what you will read below was written yesterday, and we have thought long and hard before making the decision to publish it. Our thoughts, of course, are with his family at this difficult time.
Some phrases seep their way into the public consciousness as if by osmosis. Sometimes they are phrases which encapsulate something that we have been struggling to find the words for, and sometimes they are little more than media-friendly soundbites that don’t actually mean anything. The phrase “man up” falls somewhere between these two stools. Ben Zimmer of The New York Times describes the phrase as “testicular fortitude”. It is an apt description of a subtly mocking phrase which is thrown in the direction of anybody of the male gender who dares to do anything as unmasculine as show any emotion or admit to vulnerability. It is two words, or, if you prefer, five letters between the lines of which we can read a great deal, and these words are not often meant to be terribly complimentary.
Stan Collymore was awake at ten to five yesterday morning. The dark cloud had descended last week and stubbornly decided not to lift itself. He had already used his Twitter feed to try and articulate his feelings on the subject, and this morning he used his insomnia as an opportunity to try and commit to words a feeling to can often seem incomprehensible and close to indescribable. “Well, if your mind is empty, your brain ceases to function, your body is pinned to the bed, the future is a dark room, with no light, and this is your reality”. These are the words of somebody that is staring into a mental abyss, and they are little easier to read than they probably were to write. It takes a special type of bravery to admit to such feelings, and to such an extent, perhaps Collymore’s gift to us is to force us to face up to a phenomenon that often seems to have been brushed away under the carpet for many, many years.
It is, perhaps, our inability to articulate an informed debate on the subject and our discomfort at this which underpin the continuing stigma of depression in our society, and there seems to be more than an element of truth in the possibility that sweeping it under the carpet in such a way takes place to a greater extent the more masculine the environment is. At – or near – the top of this masculinity tree is professional football. Dressing rooms and other backstage areas drip with testosterone, while the culture of the game casts aside anyone that is deemed not up to their job with an ease that borders upon cynicism whilst behaviour that would not be tolerated in any other workplace without the interjection of a tribunal is treated as part and parcel of what staff are expected to tolerate.
This culture doesn’t end at the gates to clubs, either. Such a lack of understanding of depression and other mental or psychological ill health is reflected in the stands as well, of course, as in society itself in a broader sense. In terms of football, it manifests itself in a culture of abuse which has grown more pervasive in recent years. In some ways, the culture of the football crowd mirrors the online world. The anonymity of being amongst thousands of other people encourages behaviour that we wouldn’t contemplate elsewhere, just as sitting at a screen insulates us from the ramifications of comment that we pass on the internet. Modern football culture, whether at the match or in the virtual world, is a perpetual hum of bragadoccio and oneupmanship which doesn’t have the time to consider the feelings of those at which it is aimed, an endless, wretched cycle of banter which places the responsibility for not getting offended on the target rather than the perpetrator.
In the case of Stan Collymore, that his personal cloud should have descended at this precise moment might not be that surprising. He has been outspoken on the subject of racism in recent weeks and, while he has received considerable and justifiable praise for sticking his head above that particular parapet, he also came in for a dog’s abuse from some people, who have seemed unable to scramble aboard the banter bus without taking leave of their civility or sense of common decency. Collymore obviously shouldn’t have to put up with this sort of abuse should he wish to comment on any particular issue. The world is a poorer place for such behaviour from anybody, but quite asides from any other considerations, Collymore’s comments have been put into a very sharp focus indeed this afternoon.
Football and the complex world of mental health issues have crossed swords before, of course. It is now two years since the death of the Hannover 96 goalkeeper Robert Enke, who took his own life after failing to come to terms with the death of his young daughter, while a German referee, Babak Rafati, recently attempted suicide and the death of Justin Fashanu in May 1998 should have shone a harsher light on the issue than it did. Yet suicide is just one manifestation of depression. We should consider those players that end up addicted to alcohol, drugs or gambling as well (the tendency towards treating likes of, say, George Best and Paul Gascoigne as no more than figures of fun is a particularly galling one), and we should re-examine how football treats all of those that work within it that are at risk, from players that retire and find themselves with a gaping hole in their lives to those that don’t quite make the grade in the first place, as well as how those of us on the side-lines consider our treatment of others.
In a horribly prescient article in The Guardian yesterday, The Secret Footballer wrote that, “The word “depression” is suffering from a tired image and doesn’t seem to have penetrated the public divide in perhaps the same way that, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder has”. It is time, perhaps, to reflect upon the way that we treat ourselves, the way that we treat the game and our priorities. It is time to begin to come to terms with the pressures that we put people under in the name of sport, and to break out of the strait-jacket that our lack of understanding of this crippling debilitation places us in – in particular, to understand that money, wealth and celebrity simply do not apply for those amongst us for whom the clouds occasionally descend to blot out the sun of our lives.
If Stan Collymore’s bravery in speaking out and the deaths Robert Enke and Justin Fashanu come to count for anything, then please let it be that the shock of such news startles the rest of us to a greater maturity in terms of the way in which we relate to the game and facing up to the complexities of depression and suicide within society as well as within football itself. Depression is just one cause of suicide and not all that take their own lives are depressed. We have to face up to a subject that we do not wish to face up to, and those in a position of power within the game must re-evaluate the pressures that those within the game find themselves under, whether those pressures are brought about by the game itself or not. And if you find yourself affected by depression or thoughts of suicide, you should contact Mind or the Samaritans immediately, because “manning up” in itself is not advice that should be listened to.
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