Ricky Hatton took that dreaded descent through 18 letters of the alphabet just over a week ago: from hero to zero. The former world champion boxer was secretly filmed taking drugs by a "friend" in the pay of a tabloid newspaper. His reputation as a lovable and humble pugilist-next-door, built up over a 12-year professional career, was destroyed in the time it takes Mr and Mrs Judgemental to finish their cornflakes.
Hatton has blamed his drug and alcohol abuse on depression caused by a failure to cope with retirement. That is hardly a new story. History is littered with the pickled and addled bodies of former professionals who struggled to find meaning after sport. However, one must assume that the number of basket cases will only increase in the modern age of sky-high wages. Previously, a retired athlete had no choice but to find himself any proper job to put food on the table: running a pub, selling insurance, opening a shop.
Ray Wilson, a football World Cup winner with England, became an undertaker. Neil Webb, the former Manchester United midfielder, became a postman. Jeff Astle, the West Bromwich Albion striker famous for his headed goals from set-pieces, became a window cleaner with the wry slogan: "Jeff Astle never misses corners." Modern athletes, unaware that the routine drudgery of daily toil is what keeps most men sane, would probably view such occupations as a humiliating fall from grace.
Unwilling to stoop to the long hours and low wages of mere mortals, they are trapped by their mammoth wealth into doing the only type of work that matches their notion of the correct effort-to-reward ratio: television. For the relatively lucky few, that means spouting meaningless platitudes as a television match pundit. Most are unspeakably dull, while a few jesters deliberately court controversy by offering a distorted view of events. In the kingdom of the bland, the cock-eyed man is king.
For the rest, "television" means ritualised humiliation disguised as family entertainment. It means dancing and ice-skating competitions, in which former titans of the pitch and ring (Peter Schmeichel, Evander Holyfield, Kenny Logan) are squeezed into satin and sequins for a flat-footed rumba and a hilarious pratfall. It means shows such as Hole In The Wall, in which a lycra-clad Austin Healey, a rugby union World Cup winner, must contort his body to avoid being knocked into a pool by a moving wall.
It means the grotesque circus of I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!, in which proud men like Neil "Razor" Ruddock, the former Liverpool footballer, are starved to emotional breaking point. The standard defence for these indignities is that they are harmless fun. I disagree. It believe they pander to our unhealthy desire to knock our man-made idols from their pedestals, partly to make way for new idols, partly to soothe our insecurities about leading entirely non-heroic lives.
"I may have never won a World Cup or won a prize fight", we tell ourselves, "but at least the whole country has not seen me in spandex and Cuban heels, shaking my maracas to some spicy Latin dance." This is the life Ricky Hatton faces when he gets out of rehabilitation: drugs, golf or televised humiliation in sequins. Hero to zero, or hero to bolero. No wonder he is depressed. Will Batchelor is a writer, broadcaster and self-confessed cynical sports fan.