The suicide of Gary Speed has struck right to the heart of the football community worldwide.
Simply because it confronts the very issue the game, and much of professional sport for that matter, has always struggled to face, that footballers are exactly like the rest of us and have the same vulnerabilities and issues of anyone else, yet are less likely to admit to them than most.
Why? Because a footballer is supposed to be bullet-proof, strong, a champion, impervious to psychological problems because of the money, fame, success, when all they are is a person like the rest of us, like you, who happens to have a gift or aptitude for kicking a ball and has worked out how to excel athletically.
But, as you see with many top athletes, this does not mean they have worked out other areas of their life.
In fact, the single-minded pursuit of success in sport can exacerbate issues with family, relationships, business, health and, in particular, many athletes have very serious problems in their immediate post career trying to deal with the transition.
We watch our heroes running around or managing at the highest levels of the game they seem so strong, to be able to handle anything that comes their way and yet, out of the blue, one of these gifted people takes their own life.
Just like that.
It stuns us because they seem so capable, so in control, so successful and it’s quite confronting to discover that players of the stature of Gary Speed, Stan Collymore, Sebastian Deisler or Germany goalkeeper, Robert Enke, who committed suicide in 2009, have the same problems as the rest of us, they just don’t show it, or talk about it.
Sometimes until it’s too late.
And therein lies the problem.
Because football has never dealt with the issues of mental health well, if at all, and many other human problems or conditions besides.
One reason is that football has historically been very much a working man’s game, one of toughness and grit, at least in the birthplace of football at any rate, in England, and much of this attitude still exists today.
A footballer is supposed to do his job, work his guts out, play for the shirt, earn his pay and shut his mouth, and should be tough enough to never have any problems.
Strength has always been valued above honesty or openness, and in return most footballers feel they aren’t able to discuss personal issues that the rest of modern society take for granted.
Depression is a major one of these that has become an insidious and serious problem in societ.
The traditional dressing room is a hyper macho environment in which any weakness at all is heavily criticised or ridiculed, more a school yard playground than a sophisticated working environment in which personal stability and well-being is a major contributor to overall performance.
According to statistics, though, around one million Australian adults live with depression, around one in five of us, as well as 100,000 young Australians.
One in five women will experience depression at some time in their life and one in eight males, so it is highly likely there are some A-League and W-League footballers dealing with this serious condition at this present moment.
The only question that counts is whether these players are in an environment where they are encouraged and are made to feel completely comfortable in talking about their feelings, confronting the issues and whether they would and will be supported by their team-mates, their club, their fans and the game in doing so?
Not whether there are some programs in place, mind you, but whether the players themselves feel the game is enlightened enough that they will not be judged by admitting to weaknesses that the rest of society can do so freely.
Now, after the terribly sad passing of Speed, would be an excellent time to ask yourself, how would I judge a player on my team, or the Socceroos, if they admitted a psychological illness and sought treatment.
Would I extend the same courtesy to them as my workmates or myself?
If the answer is no, and I fully expect it is for most players, we have work to do. Immediately.
I am certain our own game has work to do in this area and would like to see a round of this season’s A-League and W-League to promote the issue of mental health in Australia and encourage more openness in professional sport as well as the workplaces of this country.
Because what Gary Speed’s death has done is not just thrown light on the seriousness of people living with depression, but the very issue of footballers being able to admit they have the same weaknesses as the rest of us, and to be supported in getting treatment.
For us, in essence, to see them as people first and footballers second, rather than super athletes who have every part of their life in perfect control and harmony.
The only certainty in life is this, no one is superhuman, and we all have failings.
May Gary Speed rest in peace.
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