Buddy Franklin has withdrawn from the 2015 qualifying final, Sydney vs Fremantle. It’s an enormous decision, to publicly acknowledge and give proper attention to a mental illness in circumstances so typically characterised as hyper-masculine, and it has been met with support. While Swans fans are no doubt feeling incredulity and disappointment as they watch their chances of making another finals run evaporate, the response from the fan base and wider sports community has generally been positive.
Today marks R U OK Day 2015 – a day driven to propel the conversation on mental health in Australia and eliminate stigma around mental illness. The Sydney Swans and Franklin’s openness and refusal to cloak this injury with an excuse more palatable to the fan base is a huge stride in the right direction for accepting mental illness as a genuine medical condition, no less so in sport than anywhere else. It would appear as though even in the most masculine of environs, the conversation is maturing to a point where acceptance and support outweigh criticism and stigma.
This has not always been the case. The 1998 World Cup Final is an example of how far the conversation on mental health has come in the past 17 years. The world’s greatest player and Brazil’s leading light, Ronaldo, was inexplicably announced as starting on the bench a few hours before the game. The world’s media went into meltdown. Had he had a fit? Had he been poisoned? Assaulted a teammate? What could possibly have occurred to make this fit and able-bodied man unable to play in World Cup Final? Thirty minutes before the game, Ronaldo was reinstalled into the starting lineup – reportedly due to pressure from those higher up in the game and, depending on who you speak to, members of the Brazilian government.
Brazil lost the final 3-0 to France and Ronaldo was a shadow of his brilliant self. Ronaldo’s mystery illness has been speculated on for years, with conspiracy and cloak and dagger marking other far more likely explanations. Occam’s razor suggests it was a mental condition, we’ll probably never know, but the hyperbolic and inferred shaming that goes with the conspiracy talk has overwhelmed any sympathetic discussion.
In sport, those who are implicitly characterised as “mentally weak” are consistently ridiculed, scoffed at and put down. Whether it’s characterised as “choking”, not rising to the occasion or refusing the play through injury, athletes are who are perceived as anything but physically and mentally indomitable are chastised. We celebrate the strong – the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants – those who are impervious to pressure, and ridicule the weak. Missing a penalty or a free throw in a high pressure situation is as good an indicator of character for many as an individual’s entire off field life. Sports can be disappointing when the outcome doesn’t suit you, but disappointment – as fans, we can live with that.
Perhaps it’s time to change the conversation.
James Wright is an editor at New Albion.