This isn’t written in remembrance of the Wales manager Gary Speed who took his own life this weekend. Speed’s death is simply very sad and there are moving and well written tributes all over the internet. It is, though, the consequence of my thinking about Speed’s death, and about football’s response to the tragedy.
Johan Cruyff said that ‘Football is a game played with your brain’ (I know this because my friend Gavin, occasionally of these pages, used to have a bright orange t-shirt emblazoned to that effect). Cruyff, not always the most desirable authority (though he knows what he’s about here), is talking about actually playing football: privileging the spatial awareness and positional intelligence for which he and his Ajax, Barcelona and Holland teams were known. Implicitly, though, he also references the importance of mental health to a footballer. Which, of course, is obvious. You need your brain in order to function in any professional, personal or indeed physical capacity.
That is not true of, say, your hamstring. Or your big toe.
Again, this is an obvious point. But isn’t it strange that for a footballer depression remains a debilitating ailment which cannot speak its name, which sufferers hide to the point of suicide, while stubbed toes and dead legs are deemed perfectly adequate excuses for a few days off work? (This incongruity is exaggerated by the fact that certain footballers regularly pretend to be suffering physically in front of literally millions of people). It is certainly true that society in general remains deficient in its response to depression and other mental health issues (and that football puts a greater strain on the big toe than does typing). At least in other work environments, though, these exist within a spectrum of illness reasonably understood to affect performance at work. This is not true of football.
The reasons for this are historically rooted, and resultantly complex, but professional sport in general, and football in extreme, operates a complete inversion of the body/mind relationship. The athlete’s body is venerated; like a priceless artifact, the smallest defect is eradicated with meticulous, expert care. At the same time, his or her mind is treated as an irrelevance or, worse, an inconvenience.
Evidence for this is everywhere. On the extreme end, is Big ‘Ron’ Atkinson’s oft-quoted lack of sympathy for Stan Collymore and the recent cyber bullying of the same player by his TalkSport colleague Mike Parry (whose Twitter bio reads, ‘talks trash to earn a twiglet or two’, sounds like an ass doesn’t he? Well he is)*. Atkinson’s underlying assumption is that a footballer’s remuneration ensures absolute comfort and well-being, which of course it does: physically. There are indirect examples too: Robbie Fowler responding to Graeme le Saux’s perceived intellectualism by baring his arse cheeks in a homophobic taunt. Although not ostensibly related to mental health, Fowler’s jibe illustrates the physicality with which the footballer is hardwired to respond.
Perhaps this is unavoidable. Football is a physical game after all. But fundamentally, as this photograph (below), tweeted by Collymore during the week, illustrates, the mind and the body are not the independent entities football exaggerates them to be and depression is a better reason to miss a game than a tight hamstring. And eventually, football (‘a game you play with your brain’) will have to acknowledge this.
* Parry has since apologized for the ‘timing’ of his remarks, inappropriate (he feels) ‘in light of Gary Speed’s death’. ‘Timing’ is the apologist’s favourite euphemism and Parry’s ‘apology’ is palpable bullshit.