You know that Gary Speed? Mental midget, he was. Took the easy option. The coward’s way out. Didn’t tell anybody, either. And as for Robert Enke, that German ‘keeper who threw himself in front of a train? What was his problem? Had it all, didn’t he? Couldn’t handle the pressure? Do me a favour. This is a man’s sport. If he couldn’t take it, he should have quit and become a baker or something, right?
As an opening paragraph, on a scale of one to ten, how much does that offend you? I’d imagine quite a bit. Don’t worry though, I’ll just throw the ‘b-word’ into the mix and all’s forgiven. What? Can’t you take a joke? Are you some kind of bleeding heart hippie or something? It’s banter. You know, banter. I’ll keep hiding behind that because once that caveat’s thrown in, you can’t touch me. After all, if it’s good enough for Piers Morgan and the Australian cricket team, why shouldn’t it be good enough for somebody like me? Banter or ‘sledging’ is part of sport and therefore anyone voicing concern should just shut up and go and watch some bowls instead.
Of course, I believe none of that rubbish. I’m one of those over-sensitive types who abhors the practice of highlighting someone’s deficiencies for the amusement of others whilst seeking to gain some kind of advantage over them. To say that Morgan’s tweets were ill-considered in the immediate aftermath of Jonathan Trott’s brave decision to leave the Ashes tour, because of a stress-related illness, would be an understatement. Despite passing on his best wishes to the departing cricketer, he subsequently posted quotes on mental toughness with the intention of ‘motivating’ the rest of the team.
As is generally the case in these matters, Morgan took to evoking the language of war in order to barrack the team, using Keith Miller’s observation that “pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not,” to make some spurious and irrelevant point. And then he chucked in a bit of Winston Churchill for good measure. Having already written at length last season regarding my unease with the comparisons made between sport and war, I feel I need to briefly return to the subject again.
It’s easy to juxtapose the bravery of fighter pilots in the face of such extreme conditions with the perceived mental fragility of sportsmen but let’s not neglect to mention that many of these men returned from war broken and suffering from acute post-traumatic stress disorder. Many were never the same again. My great-uncle Nikos who spent a great proportion of the war in a German POW camp never spoke of his experiences but instead took refuge in a bottle whose effects invariably made him weep silently, alone in a locked bedroom. Nobody thought to offer him counselling. He was a man after all and had to shoulder and fight a solitary battle with his demons. That’s how it was in those days. To summon the weighty ghost of Churchill but to not acknowledge that he also fought a constant battle with manic depression only adds to the callousness of Morgan’s comments.
This is exacerbated further when the anniversaries of both Speed and Enke’s tragic deaths have only just passed. Sadly, within the ultra-masculine world of professional sport, it seems to be a commonly held and accepted rationale that such insensitivity is par for the course. I wholly appreciate that a ‘by any means necessary’ mentality takes hold in such arenas but when grown men, role models if you will, resort to the name-calling and threats of violence that should be left behind on the playground, what does that say about us all? Do people really get off on winning by crushing the mental resolve of their opponents? It would evidently seem so if the attitude of the Australian media over the past week is anything to go by. The Corinthian ideal doesn’t really have a place in a world driven by the oppression of meeting targets and posting results.
When such a mentality permeates all aspects of society, it’s a wonder that not more sportsmen and women succumb to the darkness of depression; after all why should they be exempt? Clarke Carlisle and Stan Collymore have been pro-active in highlighting such issues within football and have done so by eloquently recounting their own personal battles with mental illness. Just because someone is seemingly at the pinnacle of their profession who is paid vast amounts to essentially live out their dreams, it does not necessarily follow that that person should enjoy a mental equilibrium. Being verbally abused each week by strangers can’t help those afflicted with such conditions either. No doubt, the insensitive would suggest that people who suffer such afflictions should grow a thicker skin but it takes a small thing to trigger a downward spiral and everybody has a breaking point. Those same ‘dismissives’ would be less readily damning towards someone whose illness is physical rather than mental, I’m sure.
The image of Vinnie Jones gripping Paul Gascoigne’s testicles has oddly attained iconic status as the years have passed. It’s apparently humourous, held up as some kind of indicator of Gazza’s clownishness and Jones’ faux hardman credentials. However, the story goes that Jones verbally abused Gascoigne so viciously during that match that Gazza cried at half-time and had to be cajoled into coming out for the second half, paralysed as he was by fear. Considering the mental battles that Gascoigne has fought over the years, does the picture not then come to act as a symbol for the crushing brutality of the bully on those more fragile than himself? To that end, when I think back to Eric Cantona’s similarly iconic kung-fu kick on a fan, I’m prone to applaud rather than condemn such an extreme measure. Why should anyone put up with vitriol and bile and goading no matter how famous he is? Cantona was an exception though. Many of us are condemned to suffer in silence for fear of ridicule.
Consider the fact that trainee teachers are perennially advised to be positive and acknowledge students’ strengths when assessing work or disseminating verbal praise in the classroom. Does that somehow stop after we pass the age of eighteen? Isn’t it obvious that insulting or berating someone is more destructive than encouragement? And is it right that we accept such dark arts as ‘part of the game’? Is that really the example that we want to pass on to future sportspeople?
What do you expect though when we live in a world where those who have turned cruelty and bullying into a highly lucrative artform are lavished with wealth, power and influence? Whether the Piers Morgans, Simon Cowells and Jeremy Clarksons are a symptom or the cause of such a worldview is up for debate but a little more empathy might just go a long way to easing the stresses that vulnerable individuals like Jonathan Trott have to suffer. I’m not suggesting any of this might have saved Gary Speed or Robert Enke but a less gleefully abrasive society is one we should all aspire to.
Jonathan Trott’s decision to return home is courageous enough and his honesty is something that should be held up as an example and inspiration for others in similar situations. The negative reaction of others who really should know better however, is something that brings shame on us all.
Further reading: One Gary Speed: A Tribute
Dispatches From A Football Sofa was honoured to be shortlisted by the Football Supporters’ Federation for Blog of the Year. If you enjoy any of my musings, feel free to cast a vote at the following link > FSF Awards 2013
Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @Sofalife