But I could not stem the tide of overwhelm

 

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On a day where Dermott Brereton penned an article on how often Jake Stringer was lost on a football field, on a day where Jason Akermanis dusted himself off to provide advice to a “timid” Jason Johannisen (and Wayne Carey chimed on both Bulldogs players), on a day Gary Buckenara described several Collingwood players as C and D graders (complete with calling for some careers to end), on a day where Jon “Uncomfortable” Ralph decided that the time Ty Vickery had concussion and didn’t know where he was on a football field was a “bizarre incident”, and in a week filled with thought bubbles, ill-founded ideas and media speculation about the exact week Nathan Buckley should be sacked, old media decided to eschew the kind of introspection of their writing you would expect when one the games biggest and brightest young talents took indefinite leave for mental health issues. Looking inward isn’t old medias strong suit, and when left with the Tom Boyd story, they decided to blame the old standard – keyboard warriors. Twitter. That damn comments section underneath the articles. The line between savage criticism and “football opinion” has never been thinner though, and as the Tom Boyd story was printed, the opportunity for self-reflection among media was missed. The world kept on spinning, and no one spoke at all…

There’s a strange mood among former players – empathetic at times, cruel and dismissive at others, depending on whether or not whether they are expected to be quoted or not, whether they are on the record or talking around a few beers after a talk at the local footy club. Most of the sporting understanding of depression (as we’ve discussed before) simply equates depression with being “out of form” or “getting a kick” like it’s a catch-all cure. There’s also the small matter of Tom Boyd being “million dollar Tom Boyd”, which leads to people in offices snorting and saying “Ha! Give me a million dollars a year! I wouldn’t be depressed!” (don’t be that person by the way). After all the Herald Sun responded to the Bernard Tomic press conference by digging up someone on 50K a year to say how happy they would be to have his money (because of course they did). As a naturally curious person, it was strange to me that via media narrative, I had never found anything out about Tom Boyd as a person. The first things that came to mind related to the very things I always tried to avoid judging people as people for – form and money. In Boyd’s case, it’s part of the story but not all of the story. It could be everything, it could be nothing…

After all, a cursory search around AFL players who suffered from depression and mental health issues covers all ends of the spectrum – successful Premiership players like Ken Hunter and Wayne Schwass, Boyd himself who starred in a Grand Final, Garry Lyon who was seen as the most self-confident man in Melbourne, through to Buddy Franklin who strawman would think “had it all”, right through to players you don’t remember who were chewed up and spat out by a brutal system, washed up at 21. Players who appear in brief deep in the AFL archives. Players mentioned only in articles in dispatches with quotes such as “not meeting professional standards” or “lost the passion to play” tagged to their name. In this era, it’s de rigueur to say Twitter is to blame for the rise of players taking a break from the game for mental health issues, but it’s also interesting to think about how players with depression are lumped together. How they are talked about. Not as individuals, but as footballers. That they are bound by their ability to kick a ball. That they are thought of us a group, or that complex people are assessed for one quality, how they kick a ball. Alex Fasolo and Tom Boyd will appear on a list together as “footballers who have taken a break”, as if they are entirely the same person, with the same issues.

Of course all of this was occurring long before the first egg with malicious intent ever logged on to Twitter. In 1999 Jill Singer did a piece for the 7:30 report about AFL depression that featured Ken Hunter discussing a stint in hospital being treated for mental health issues while other patients berated him for not helping his team-mates. Brutal men like David Parkin and Robert Walls discussed seeing grown men professionally and personally break down, and attempt suicide in extreme cases. So the role of “old media” has been around for a long time, but so has the brutality of football, the idea and idealization that everyone who plays football is lucky, privileged, arrogant, cocksure and rich. Parkin and Walls have had to delist players, and Walls in particular is the living example of the great dichotomy of football – the man who brutalised Shane Strempel, the dour clinical finisher of careers who became a dour judge and jury on TV, but self-aware enough to know he’s doing it and talking candidly about his hurt seeing people in mental hell. Football has always been this way, mixing the absolute brutality and the expected conformity of the blokey bloke with a self-awareness that they will all ultimately be cast aside when the time is club. They phrase it in cliches without really knowing it. Father time waits for no one. No one is bigger than the club…

Now don’t get me wrong, Twitter in particular can be the worst of humanity, as a glance at Erin Rileys timeline this week would show, and there is still a strain of Mark McClures and old-time footballers who think the solution is “don’t log on!” as if that was somehow going to protect you from critiques and memes and ridicule. Social media can be a horrendous place – it can also be incredibly supportive. It can rally around a cause and troll someone to take their own life. It can praise a player for a magnificent game and force Manchester Uniteds Darron Gibson off it after an hour due to absolute ridicule and vile tweets. The worst of Twitter is that is has emboldened the troll, made that a habit and a career choice. Targeting a particular person in anonymity is the absolute worst of Twitter, sending something to someone with no responsibility, accountability or thought other than being as vile as possible. Even something as simplistic as a meme can have a scathing effect on a players mental health. Giving everyone a voice opens up the world to every single opinion, to it’s benefit and detriment, and lets trolls effortlessly slip into a fragile psyche with a click of a button.

However, for too long, it’s been too easy for “old media” to palm their responsibilities for the negativity and scathing criticism of players, the “narrative,” “the agenda”, and then wash their hands of their stories and pass the blame on to “keyboard warriors” as an easy way to exempt themselves and get off the hook. Media after all can simply shake their heads at the “comments section” of stories they write. As an oft quoted example (in our PR circles) Leigh Matthews two games into Jack Watts career when Watts was still in high school scoffed live on air “He sure doesn’t look like a #1 draft pick to me”, but decried on 5AA the “unbelievable cruelty” of social media.

What’s worse? A vile tweet or a “legend of the game” saying two games in you aren’t any good, and the ripple effect of that weekly discussion that comes from that statement? And as stated above, this was absolutely the way things were long before Twitter came into view. In that era, the word of a head football writer was sacrosanct – a Mike Sheahan had total sway on the town as a “doyen” of football writing, and his criticism reverberated. The coach was a thunderous, make or break presence inside the club and players were genuinely done once delisted, drifting to the state leagues with no prospect of return. Simply coming up with a glib analysis such as “it’s that damn Twitter” isn’t thinking things through, isn’t wondering if the media participant is part of the problem or part of the solution.

It’s difficult to imagine old media taking responsibility for their current state any time soon and becoming self-aware, but they have to consider their current position. Commentators, football shows, football panels, they pedal in the shallows, they deal in negatives, they revel in the narrative of chasing coaches from jobs or finding someone with “poor body language” like Jesse Hogan, and while people claim “old media” is dying, it’s not dead yet, and more and more journalists and TV shows keep cropping up, more and more Graham Cornes and Garry Lyons and Damien Barretts appear shouting criticism over each other in the hope something sticks.

As the Singer piece showed, depression in football isn’t a “keyboard warrior” issue alone, and as the old media lurches more and more into “what’s wrong with Collingwood (Kingy)” style negative analysis, as Monday night becomes more and more negative (we’ll get to that soon enough) media is becoming defensive, players are becoming more hesitant to “open up”, and viewers are turning off in droves, seeking more positivity and joy in the middle of a wonderful season. Absolving themselves of their role in the Murdochian based search for clicks, in the race for viral content, in the race where opinion is more important than being right, where “long form writing” is out and people who hate football have a prime time show on Channel 9 to make guesses and thought bubbles is to absolve yourself from an important conversation about your place in the game well worth having.

In the wake of Tom Boyds break from the game, Michael Lynch in the Age penned an entire article that blamed keyboard warriors and social media entirely for the situation Tom Boyd was in without one referencing or quoting the Luke Beveridge quotes about the role old media played in the pressures Boyd was facing. Worse, Mark Robinson, the man of deft touch, penned an article which the entire summation of which seemed to be “bad luck Tommy, but it wasn’t our fault”. Robinsons article seemingly referenced every single thing that could possibly have put pressure on Boyd (including Liam Pickering, who lest we forget, Robinson had a court case against, so the tradition of axes being ground was kept up). Of course, social media was part of the criticism, but so was, if I’ve read the article right, Boyd himself for taking the money? Robinson pondered out loud exactly what media was, and then pledged in the final line to be more understanding. It was a typically scattergun, messy article, mixing pledges to be understanding with personal agendas and buck passing. It’s also worth realising Robinsons use of social media isn’t filled with responsibility. Was there a single use of social media more damaging this year than Robinsons Alex Fasolo tweet? All we needed was Wayne Careys opinion on the matter, and the circle was truly complete…

There’s no easy solution to any of this – football will always be inherently brutal, and watching it will engender fan brutality. It will always have players who are “done” by 21, those who never made it. It will also have problems with those who leave the spotlight, who can’t perform anymore, who don’t know what the meaning of life is for when they leave the “big time” behind. There will be players taking breaks for mental health and personal issues who barely use Twitter, who aren’t struggling for a kick, who are playing well, who are seemingly bullet proof to the outside world. That won’t change. But the language of football can change – it won’t of course. The legacy of the Andrew Demetriou years (among others) was that we must talk about football all year-long, all day long if possible. That spawns content, and content must be loud. Old media and social media are more hand in glove than old media cares to admit. After all, in 2016, Mark Robinson penned a long article about Tom Boyd failing to live up to the hype and how under pressure he was. Complete with Twitter link. Complete with interactive poll…complete with a comments section filled with keyboard warriors…

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

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