The Last Word: Depression does not discriminate – but sport hasn't realised that yet
Boycott's ignorant, uninformed and foolish remarks about Yardy's illness may end up doing a service to mental health
Sunday 27 March 2011
It was not Geoffrey Boycott's intention and neither will it be the legacy of his comments concerning Michael Yardy, the England cricketer who withdrew from the World Cup with depression last week. But the belligerent old fool – or "gruff Yorkshireman" as it is obligatory to label him – might actually have done something of a service to mental health last week.
The reaction revealed so much about the continuing attitude to this illness. Yes, the outrage which greeted Boycott's observations was undoubtedly well meant, but, in fact, it exposed sport's great misunderstanding of depression. Boycott was primarily accused of being insensitive and crass. In truth, they weren't his biggest faults.
Boycott was ignorant. Yet so too were the majority of the commentators. On one hand, they lambastedBoycott for linking the illness with Yardy's poor form in the subcontinent and then, with the other, proved they were similarly uninformed. Michael Vaughan said on Test Match Special: "I've said for a long time that the international cricket schedule is ridiculous, and maybe this will highlight the fact."
Depression doesn't come on due to playing too much cricket, just like it doesn't come on due to overwork in any profession. Granted, there are triggers, one of which might or might not be the burden of expectation. Yet to depict Yardy as an example of a burnt-out sportsman, as some sort of martyr for the flogged all-rounder, is deeply misguided. It's not like a dodgy hamstring which eventually snaps due to the merciless grind. For all we know, or indeed, Yardy knows, he could have suffered just as badly if he had been chilled out at home in Sussex these last few months.
Alastair Campbell explained it best. He always does when discussing a subject close to his heart. Campbell might not have impressed everyone as the PR man of New Labour, but those of us who have been afflicted by "The Big D" could wish for no more honest spokesman. "How would Boycott have felt if I had suggested to him that his cancer had resulted from poor performance as a sportsman or sports commentator?" Campbell wrote on his blog. "I'm afraid that's not how it works. For depressives, depression just is, the same as for cancer sufferers, cancer just is, and if you catch a cold, you just do."
Not to single out Vaughan, or to accuse him of any thoughtlessness. In fact, the tone of his comments revealed the exact opposite. He merely fell in the same trap as most analysts when reviewing a subject they know little about. As it happens, Vaughan is one of the more enlightened as he plainly did learn something when he was England captain and Marcus Trescothick was in the midst of his personal hell. "People have to understand that depression is not a sign of any kind of weakness," said Vaughan. "It can just happen."
If only. The awful shame is that it can't "just happen" in sport. The media won't allow it. Professional sportsmen and sportswomen don't live by the same rules as the rest of us. Sure, the statistics show that depression is so prevalent in our society that this many cricketers, this many footballers and this many darts players are bound to be depressives. But that doesn't matter. The journalist's handbook says that when a high-profile sporting figure has a problem, it must first be linked to he or she being a high-profile sporting figure and not to them being a human. And that doesn't apply only to depression.
For example, when Gérard Houllier collapsed at Liverpool, he was not a man in his mid-50s struck down with heart trouble, as men in their mid-50s sometimes are. He was, of course, a manager whose heart blew up due to the intense pressures of being a gaffer. It was an instant cause célèbre – the poor managers putting their lives on the line. The question is, or should have been, is it really any more stressful than any other job? More stressful than operating a pneumatic drill, or being a bank manager hitting targets, or being out of work and wondering how to pay the mortgage? All that was ignored, as well as the latter revelation that Houllier's "dissection of the aorta" was almost certainly hereditary. In all likelihood, it had nothing to do with his job.
It's the same when a player is caught taking recreational drugs. It can't be written off as a young man or young woman occasionally snorting cocaine, as a lot of young men and young women tend to. He has to have a "drugs problem" and this "drugs problem" has to be connected with his profession. So it was with Matt Stevens, the England prop, who received a two-year ban for testing positive. Fair enough, he broke the rules, he served the time. But he was forced to do so while being held up as some sort of poster boy for the perils of the excesses which stalk our sporting superstars. It was absurd and unfair.
It's all part of the game. Tony Adams's alcoholism was entirely related with his footballing fame, with nobody stopping to ponder whether he might have been cursed by alcoholism anyway. Paul Gascoigne could not handle the spotlight, the pressure, the adulation, so that's why he's turned out the depressed, alcoholic he is. Simple. As long as you pay no heed to the rather inconvenient truth that there are plenty with the same problems as Gascoigne, but who have led normal lives.
Depression doesn't discriminate – with individual or circumstance. It's time sport and its chroniclers realised that. The plight of Michael Yardy may well help in this regard, but surveying the reaction I doubt it. So many of our sportsmen will be suffering in silence because they can't face the shame brought on by the ignorance of their condition.
Perhaps the best we can ever hope for is not understanding but acceptance. So one day the injury list in the papers will read: "Missing: Scholes (hamstring), Beckham (metatarsal), Bloggs (depression)."
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