First there was poor Grant Hackett who appeared to have a breakdown and now even more tragically, former Wallaby, Dan Vickerman has passed away. Meanwhile the reality TV-style tragedy of Ben Cousins and his dramas are in front of us almost weekly.
Looking after elite athletes begins from the moment they lace up their first shoe or boot or make their first dive. Looking after athletes should never end. To the public, athletes are seen as having the dream life. They play sport for a living. That’s how they earn their keep, which pays for their fancy houses, cars and holidays. They get clothes thrown at them and no-one ever lets them buy even so much as a coffee. Their life appears to be perfect.
When they finish sport, they get a job as a commentator, so their dream life continues.
But the reality is, literally only a handful of players receive jobs in the media. Every other retired sportsperson now has to wake up every morning and… do what? We are programmed to go to work. We have somewhere to be. We have something to do for eight hours.
Top athletes have been told what to do, where to be, what to eat, what to say, what not to say, what to wear, what you should be wearing, who you shouldn’t be drinking with and what time to come home from drinking.
These aren’t rules and they aren’t big things. Most normal people face these questions every single day. For an athlete, without this direction they can be completely lost.
I once worked with someone from the NRL fraternity who had been very successful for many years. I won’t give you his name as he had a very personal and honest conversation with me, but he alluded to his severe depression after no longer working in the game, after 40 years as a player or administrator. He told me he didn’t get out of bed for six months, because he just didn’t know what to do.
Crossing the Line
Completely by chance, I was promoting a Summit last month called Crossing the Line, which looked at athlete welfare and a number of issues faced by athletes during their career and after their career. Gearoid Towey, a three time Olympian himself, is the founder of this organisation and I truly commend him for what he is trying to achieve – changing the lives of athletes.
To give you a sense of how big this issue is in the community, when I sent out a media release on this Summit within 6 hours I was flooded with phone calls when Grant had had a turn for the worse, from media seeking comment from Gearoid. It allowed Gearoid to talk about the importance of learning for athletes and how to deal with life after sport.
It also allowed him to promote the 20 incredible athletes he had speaking at the Summit, many of who had had their struggles in the past and some of who were happy to pass on their learnings to current athletes and other former athletes.
One of these speakers was meant to be Dan Vickerman.
In recent weeks I have heard many people blame the media for what has happened to Grant. I think this is a bit harsh. They have actually brought to light what a serious issue athlete welfare is and have been very careful with all their reporting. The media also allowed for a public search for Grant. Hopefully they let him recover and rebuild now.
All athletes are just normal people. Once the lights go out they are forced to assimilate into society and this is not an easy task.
I hope all new, current and former athletes can receive the care they require so they can have a happy life after sport. I hope more people like Gearoid Towey are involved with the transition of these athletes and we can reduce the tragic story lines such as what has happened with Dan Vickerman.
My thoughts are with his family, friends and the entire Rugby community.
My thoughts are also with Grant Hackett and his family and friends.
Finally, my thoughts are with every athlete – current and past, who is struggling with life after sport. I hope they have the network to continue a happy life without being in the spotlight, because this is the most challenging competition they will ever be in.
Joe Hughes is a Sports Business lecturer at Macleay College and runs his own sports marketing consultancy. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.