Depression in sport is particularly on-trend nowadays. Gary Speed’s suicide, despite his apparent balance, talent, good looks and happy-go-lucky demeanour – none of which are signs of depression or otherwise – jolted everyone.
Now they’re all at it, last week Andrew Flintoff presented a documentary on it involving some of the decade’s most celebrated sporting names. In the process he recognised that some of his own misdemeanours were a demonstration of some kind of depressive tendency.
You suspect that when The People, having spent weeks camped outside the Sporting Chance Clinic in the hope of spotting a big star through the tinted glass of some over-sized, pimped up four-wheel-drive, found out that Windass was prepared to come out, they were secretly punching the air in triumph. OK, it wasn’t a real star, but it was good enough.
The Windass story is a convenient one for a tabloid audience, but it is ultimately unhelpful. His is the standard narrative of a man who had it all, then without the structure and lustre of professional football lost his way. It involves; fast cars, loose women, money and booze. But he’s not the first to stare into an abyss after retiring from a profession offering such rewards.
I’m not suggesting that Windass is faking or just suffering from being a bit down. But it doesn’t help the wider message if people think you become depressed as the result of no longer being able to buy top of the range cars. Sadly, you can’t write a story that basically says ‘Everything was normal, nothing much happened and then I had the overwhelming urge to kill myself’.
When Neil Lennon and Stan Collymore both came out as suffering from depression years ago nobody took much notice. Both players were, in their own way, outsiders, and therefore, ‘typical’ of people with mental health issues. Lennon was a gnarly pitbull, maginalised by sectarianism, whose success was down to graft more than talent. Collymore had talent, but managed to throw Ulrika Jonsson across a bar in a depressive stupor. I mean, how can he be depressed? Mate, she’s gorgeous and therefore, you’re an idiot.
Now apparently ‘normal’ people, like Speed, and happy people, like Windass have got it. Accordingly, we react appropriately with a knowing sympathetic nod towards football’s last taboo (apart from the gay thing, obviously).
Hours before The People story broke, Oxford fans were lining up to lambast the team for its sloppy defeat to Crewe. Days after he was being begged to stay, James Constable was being pressed to leave because he’s ‘not up to this level’. Similarly, Chris Wilder should recognise his limited competence and step aside, after we lost our first in seven, conceding our second goal in 6,300 minutes.
Single events don’t, in themselves, cause depression but they can trigger depressive episodes in people who are prone to its grip. The best thing you can do for a depressive is create a healthy and stable environment in which they can function and manage their condition. They need to exercise, eat well, sleep and generally ensure that life remains devoid of extremes.
Football excels in creating an environment of extreme reactions to episodic success and failure. This is conveniently labelled ‘passion’ – the lifeblood of the sport which the media and marketers are happy to play up. Most people who actively attend football were brought up in, or are the product of, the football culture of the 1970s and 80s when football evolved from being a diversion from the working week to being overtly tribal, confrontational and aggressive.
It wasn’t always like this. There’s an old joke about Sheffield FC – the oldest club in the country – if they were the first club, then who did they play? Well, the members of the club formed teams and played each other. It was club for people who enjoyed football. It wasn’t concieved as a way of defining a town or region to the detriment of other towns or regions. In 1939 Southampton fans celebrated Portsmouth’s FA Cup win, now they tear each others’ throats out.
It makes me think of the difference between a patriot and a nationalist. A patriot loves his country; a nationalist hates every other country. I’m an Oxford United patriot and a football patriot, but increasingly we seem to be becoming football nationalists. We don’t love our team so much as hate everyone elses’.
Now, on the terraces, abuse is the norm, online it’s more venomous, on the pitch people kiss badges and rip their shirts off as a primal act of celebration following a goal, on the bench people get fired for losing a single match and referees are branded as the mentally retarded enemy of the game. And that’s not a description of the bad old days of the 1980s; it’s a manifestation of a culture that exists today. What’s more, it is wholly acceptable; a rebranded and remodelled version of the hooligan era. At least hooliganism was overtly bad.
Amidst this maelstrom, is the stricture of being a footballer. A cabal bound by common behaviours. Lee Steele’s homophobic tweet that lead to his dismissal from Oxford City last week was the illustration of the environment footballers are brought up in. To a man, it’s reported that Lee Steele is a decent bloke, and Mike Ford, despite firing him, was prepared to go on record to support him and say he isn’t a homophobe. It seems that Lee Steele’s principle crime is that he was engaging with a deeply learnt behaviour amongst footballers – banter. In the changing room this works because the rules are understood, it’s a mechanism for sifting out those who are in the football fraternity and those who aren’t. In any other environment, it’s deeply offensive. He just seems to have to forgetten where he was.
This enclosed environment, full of its extremes, isn’t a healthy one for anyone to be involved in, let alone those prone to depression. And yet, despite its current profile within sport and the apparent meaningful sympathy we have towards its sufferers (well, the famous sufferers, at least) we are quite happy to fuel that unhealthy environment by destroying and worshiping its protagonists with all the extreme passion we can muster.
Statistically speaking, in a squad of 20, 5 will suffer some form of anxiety or depression. James Constable and Chris Wilder, like Windass, Speed, Collymore and Lennon, could be among that number at Oxford. Or maybe Alfie Potter. Or Peter Leven. Or, well, anyone. They may not even know that themselves, but it could be lurking, waiting for something to trigger it. We would do well to recognise this and create a healthier environment than the one we are currently in. Not wait for one of our own to put a noose around his neck before reacting.