Wednesday 22 November 2017

Sport is not a soap opera, it's real life

This day last week, Terry Newton slashed his wrists before hanging himself in the attic of his house in Wigan. Six days previously, Kenny McKinley shot himself at his home in Denver, Colorado.

Newton was 31. He was one of a handful of players who had played in rugby league's Superleague ever since it was founded in 1996. He had 15 caps for Great Britain. He leaves behind a 27-year-old widow and two young daughters.

McKinley was just 23 and had only left South Carolina University for the National Football League's Denver Broncos last year. They were elite athletes yet they were in too much pain to carry on. Why?

In Newton's case he seems never to have recovered after testing positive for human growth hormone, being banned from the game for two years and being sacked by his club Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in February. The English media socked it to him with their usual self-righteous glee, routinely describing him as 'drugs cheat Terry Newton' and appending the words 'shamed' and 'disgraced' to his name.

The rugby league star came from a notoriously tough housing estate in Wigan. His younger sister Leanne became a heroin addict and died of pneumonia at the age of 27 two years ago. He had apparently been experiencing marital difficulties since the drugs ban and had posted 'I miss my three girls' on his Facebook page the day before he died. The following day he wrote 'Luv U all but it's end time'.

In interviews following his positive drugs test, Newton came across as a tormented soul. Yet nobody seems to have considered the effect so much negative publicity might have on a man in his condition, even though he'd admitted to being on medication for depression following his sister's death. Even in death there was no respite. The Sun headlined its report of his passing, 'Rugby drugs cheat Terry Newton kills himself'. Ugly people. But not as ugly as the internet warriors who took to the rugby league forums to criticise the minute's silence for Newton before yesterday's Superleague Grand Final between Wigan and St Helen's and generally adopted the attitude that a man's tragic death is not sufficient reason to halt anonymous attacks on his character.

Young McKinley was apparently depressed that a serious knee injury had ruled him out for the second successive season. His friends said that for the wide receiver, 'football was his life.' He had said that he might as well kill himself because of the injury but no one had taken it literally. The NFL network was on his television when he was found.

A couple of weeks back, I watched a magnificent documentary on the Miami Dolphins' running back Ricky Williams, Run Ricky Run, part of the ESPN 30 for 30 season which is an absolute must for any sports fan. Williams dropped out of the game after a positive drugs test in 2004 and the documentary shows a deeply troubled man who at times appears on the verge of losing his mind. Yet the film-maker also includes footage from sports shows of the time where journalists routinely denounced Williams as a disgrace, a spoilt brat, someone who should be treated as a pariah and held up to ridicule.

Those hacks didn't know what Williams, a victim of child sexual abuse who made a triumphant return to American football last year, was going through, just as the journalists who teed off on Terry Newton wouldn't have suspected the man was suicidal. How could they? Yet the fate of Newton and McKinley shows the vulnerability of top sportsmen, men who have put so much into their performance on the pitch it may leave them ill-equipped to deal with life off the field.

When columnists scarify Wayne Rooney, Tiger Woods and John Terry and reporters reveal the personal problems of Paul McGrath or Paul Gascoigne, who knows what damage they're doing to these people and those close to them? There is something rotten about a media world where a relatively inoffensive character like Rio Ferdinand can wake up to a Daily Mail headline reading, 'boozer, love cheat and drug test dodger. Meet the new England captain'. The whole game of treating sportsmen like soap opera characters has gone too far.

Because the suicidal young man who climbed into the attic of his house in Wigan was not a 'drugs cheat'. He was not a 'disgrace.' He was a husband. He was a father.

He was a human being.

Sunday Independent

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