Danny Rose, Marvin Sordell and the crucial fight against depression
Identity is a strange thing. There is the tangible side of the equation, the one that includes your passport, your driving licence, your name and your birth certificate. Legally speaking, that is who you are. But who are we, really? Are we defined by the things we like, the subjects we are interested in, our moral compass? It is something that academics have grappled with for centuries and though it would seem territory exclusive to lofty-thinkers, it affects everyone of us.
Depression is a symptom of something scientists still flounder over. No-one really knows why it occurs. They can tell you what happens - dopamine and serotonin levels are reduced - but not what the inherent cause is. Thus, in the absence of certainty, we speculate - one prominent assumption is that those who experience depression often struggle with who it is they actually are. Of course, there are a variety of other factors that converge to produce an unhealthy mental state and it would be pseudo-science to categorically state identity uncertainty is solely responsible.
Yet for sportspeople, grappling with ideas of the self outside of their profession is mined with peril. Recently, Danny Rose and Marvin Sordell have both spoken with eloquence and bravery about how their outlook became polluted by the dark cloak depression draws. Sordell, speaking to The Guardian, explained how he sought refuge in writing.
“I wrote Denis Prose. The poem follows my journey from the training ground to my home. Inside the car we have myself and a passaged, Denis Prose, representing two sides of my consciousness. The poem ends in suicide because depression is so powerful it tells you: ‘This is the way out. It’ll take control and everything will be over.”
If you hadn’t noticed, Denis Prose is an anagram of depression. The ex-England U’21 international described the feeling of writing as “liberating” and a vehicle to discovering an identity separate to his career.
No one experience of mental health is the same, but coupling Sordell’s words with Rose’s decision to open up about his experience prior to the World Cup invites a fruitful discussion.
The Spurs left-back revealed how he had “to get away from Tottenham” after a serious injury and months left warming the bench. This wasn’t just Rose sulking at not getting game time, but the Englishman having to face who he was when he wasn’t playing.
Of course, trying to assume intellectual authority on Rose and Sordell’s experiences is wrong and in writing about someone’s mental health, you should always be careful not to say you know exactly what they were going through. This piece isn’t trying to do that; in highlighting the link between both Sordell and Rose’s depression - a yearning to find an identity outside of football - it merely strives to cement how valuable it is that footballer’s speak out. Stigma around mental health, generally, needs to be broken and Sordell and Rose are leading the fight.
The more they speak, the more we understand. This is not just important in the sphere of mental health. Football has an ugly capacity to incubate vitriolic hurricanes. I was at a National Conference game between Torquay and Maidenhead a few years ago and stood in the terraces, a step away from the pitch. Torquay’s left-back was the subject of horrendous abuse; a litany of invectives spewing and frothing from his own supporters. Having been a season ticket holder at Cardiff City, this wasn’t a new experience for me, but I’d never experience such hate. It was as though the left-back was a manifestation of all their problems in their individual worlds, an opportunity to level all the stresses and problems of the week onto this seemingly impenetrable footballer. No doubt the poor man would’ve heard this torrent of abuse, and because he is human, it would’ve affected him.
Here lies the crux of the issue: in the collective imagination, footballers are not humans, not prone to the fluctuations of the mind. When they step out onto the pitch, they no longer deserve respect. Robbie Savage once said something interesting, and we’re paraphrasing here, but the essence was that he seldom received abuse in public - shops, bars, towns etc. - despite being one of the most heavily abused footballers of his generation on the field. It serves to emphasis this discord between players when they’re playing and when they’re not.
Now, this isn’t a snowflake-esque plea to cease all criticism. Criticism and tribalism - fervent dedication to one team, not the ugly hooliganism that is slowly resurfacing - are central pillars. Rather, it is a recognition that footballers are on the receiving end of abuse that only the lowest in society would accept outside of a stadium. Rose and Sordell, inadvertently, are combating this spiteful atmosphere by extinguishing the impression that footballers are infallible. What you say to them when they have a football shirt on has just as much an effect as when they have a Gucci t-shirt on.
We should encourage more players to expose their vulnerabilities, not just to aid the vital cause of mental health, but in the hope of reshaping our conceptions of who they are. They are humans first, footballers second. Fans would do well to remember this.