Don’t put depressed sportsmen on a pedastal
A cricketer fessing up to depression is not an ‘heroic achievement’; it’s an indication that he’s ill.
Michael Yardy, the England cricketer who flew home early from the World Cup due to depression, deserves our compassion. But does he merit our admiration? At the risk of being pilloried like Geoffrey Boycott, the England all-rounder shouldn’t be put on a pedestal for fessing up to mental illness.
Boycott has been widely lambasted for his reaction to Yardy’s decision to quit the World Cup squad. Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, the former England opener quipped: ‘He must have been reading my comments about his bowling. That’s what must have upset him because it’s obviously too much for him at this level. I’ve been, with respect, a better player… so I’ve not been in that position where my quality of play has been poor and it’s got to me mind-wise.’
Boycott’s comments were tactless and self-absorbed. The straight-talking Yorkshireman is obviously the last person you’d pick to lead you through the minefield of contemporary etiquette. Like Big Ron before him, Boycott has been a politically incorrect blunder waiting to happen. Inevitably the veteran BBC commentator has received a kicking from sections of the media. The News of the World’s Sam Peters lambasted Boycott for ‘mocking the incredibly brave decision of the England all-rounder to return home from the World Cup after admitting suffering from depression’.
Alistair Campbell, who had a nervous breakdown in the 1980s, was appalled by the comments of a man he has long idolised. ‘[H]ow would he have felt if I had suggested to him that his cancer had resulted from poor performance as a sportsman or sports commentator?’ wrote the former Downing Street spin doctor in his blog. (Boycott was treated for cancer in 2002.) ‘[H]is attitudes to mental illness could do with joining the century he commentates in, not the century he played in.’ Former England captain Michael Vaughan has questioned the assumption, implicit in Boycott’s comments, that depression is a failing. ‘People have to understand that depression is not a sign of any kind of weakness, it just can happen’, said Vaughan.
But while Boycott’s comments may have been insensitive and gauche, it shouldn’t be a hanging offence to suggest that Yardy’s poor performances for England may have contributed to, or exacerbated, his depression. Graeme Swann made a very similar point in his Sun column. ‘Players can get into pretty dark places on tour, especially if things don’t go well. You might have a couple of bad games or be dropped and your mind can take you to places you don’t want to go.’ Swann’s words were carefully chosen but the point he makes about the relationship between failure and depression isn’t a million miles from Boycott’s.
Criticising Boycott’s self-regard and insensitivity is one thing, but it doesn’t follow that Yardy should be elevated into a poster boy for mental health awareness. Observer columnist Barbara Ellen wrote that Yardy ‘has shown a great deal of courage “coming out” about his depression’. Yardy is not the first cricketer to admit suffering from depression. Former England opening batsman Marcus Trescothick retired from international cricket in 2006 after suffering from bouts of depression while touring with England. Eamonn Sweeney in the Irish Independent praised Trescothick for talking candidly about his problems in his autobiography Coming Back To Me. Sweeney wrote that the book ‘dealt intelligently and courageously with his depression and lifted the veil on one of the great taboo subjects in sport’. He also describes Trescothick as ‘an heroic figure’.
In Yardy’s case, flying home on the eve of a World Cup quarter-final can’t have been easy. It’s really sad that a cricketer, who has spent months preparing for the World Cup, should have had his dreams dashed in this way. His international cricket career is almost certainly over. Likewise, it’s terrible that Trescothick, a world-class opening batsman, should have his international career cut short by illness. But admitting that you’re ill doesn’t amount to heroism. It’s a symptom of a rather degraded view of human capability that surviving, or talking publicly about, a serious illness is regarded as a great achievement.
Invariably some commentators have used Yardy’s depression as a stick with which to beat professional cricket and its demanding touring schedule. ‘Yardy has spent the past four months on the road and has barely seen his young family. The never-ending, relentless treadmill of cricket has claimed another victim’, wrote Sam Peters. ‘Cricket’s suicide rate is higher than in any other professional sport. Mental health issues are potentially a ticking time bomb for the sport’, he added. Yardy’s England colleague Graeme Swann has also taken a swipe at the relentless fixture calendar saying: ‘As international cricketers we are frequently away from home for months, often playing fairly meaningless matches scheduled purely to put silver in the coffers of some cricket board.’
The cricket fixture schedule is, without doubt, over-congested. Swann is quite right to criticise the surfeit of meaningless matches. The seven-game one-day international series which followed the Ashes this winter is a perfect example. Judging by their jaded performances at the World Cup, it’s obvious that the England players would have benefitted from a break after Ashes tests to recharge their batteries. But it doesn’t follow that the demands of international cricket are placing too much emotional strain on players.
Professional sport is, by its very nature, stressful, demanding and ruthlessly competitive. To succeed in international cricket you need to put up with long overseas tours and possess a considerable degree of mental resilience. Unlike other jobs, those who struggle to cope with the pressure of touring – with or without an underlying propensity to depression – simply won’t make the grade. Of course the EWCB and Yardy’s club Sussex have a duty of care to ensure that players receive the right support. But international cricket will never be an accommodating work environment for people who suffer from clinical depression. This will always remain the case regardless of whether talking about depression remains taboo or not.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.