x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Attitudes towards mental illness change for the better

Geoffry Boycott will survive his injudicious comments about Michael Yardy largely because our attitude to mental health is largely ignorant.

"You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps!"

Readers of a certain vintage will remember that gag from posters and mugs brought into the workplace, usually by the self-styled "office joker".

One does not see them around so much nowadays, possibly because they have been deemed insensitive by the Political Correctness brigade or hopefully because someone has realised it is not that funny. Or because I work from home, and have neglected my duties as de facto office joker. (If it helps, I shall write the rest of this article while wearing a Homer Simpson tie.)

I still think of this phrase, however, when certain factoids about athletes are trotted out, usually for comedy value.

David Beckham arranges his cola cans so every label faces forward at the same angle.

Wayne Rooney burns through a new vacuum cleaner every few months because he leaves one running to help him sleep.

Peter Schmeichel, the former Manchester United goalkeeper, would insist on parrying exactly 100 shots before each game. We laugh at these mental ticks then admire their owner's sublime skills without stopping to link the two.

A compulsion to repeat the same action must be advantageous for a sportsman practising his craft. And an obsessive mind is more likely to seek total perfection than a well-balanced one, which is happier to make compromises. In short, you do not have to be mad to be a professional sportsman, but it helps.

It is strange, then, that we remain shocked when these mental ticks develop into mental illness. Players are allowed to be "madcap" - larking around with hilarious jokes and antics - but never actually "mad".

When Marcus Trescothick retired from international cricket in 2008 due to stress-related illness, he was initially said to be suffering from a virus. The implication was that mental illness was shameful, while physical illness was just unfortunate luck.

Thankfully, progress has been made, in cricket at least. Michael Yardy, the England all-rounder, flew home from the World Cup this week after explaining that he was suffering depression. He has been managing the illness for some time but it had worsened in recent days.

Yardy said he hoped to be fit to play for his county side, Sussex, and wanted to be honest about his reasons for leaving the England camp. And that was that. It was a simple statement of fact, delivered and reported in the same tones usually reserved for minor ligament damage.

Amid this newly mature approach, it was perhaps ironic that the most naive response came from the 70-year-old Geoffrey Boycott, the bumptious cricket legend turned commentator.

"He must have been reading my comments about his bowling," said Boycott, realising that this situation, like so many others, was all about Geoffrey Boycott. "If any blame is attached, it is partly to the selectors because, I am sorry, he is not good enough at this level."

Boycott's simplistic analysis of depression - that it is basically unhappiness caused by criticism - is exactly what we have come to expect from a man who decided several decades ago that he was right, and is yet to be persuaded otherwise.

Other sports pundits have been sacked for less but Boycott will survive, largely because our attitude to mental health has not moved far beyond those tasteless posters.

Time, perhaps, for a new one: "You don't have to be mad to be Geoffrey Boycott, but if you are belligerent, self-obsessed, witless, crass and ignorant, it helps!"

Fashion police should make stars perform in their offending attire

"Come on you lot, pull your socks up!" is one of the more repeatable phrases I remember being bellowed from the terraces of St Andrews when I first watched Birmingham City FC.

The meaning of this quaint idiom was not literal - not unless it was directed at Steve Claridge, the journeyman striker whose rumpled hosiery was his trademark.

No, the socks were a metaphor for the team's performance. The exhortation to pull them up represented the need to increase commitment, focus or energy.

Sadly for Dez Bryant, the Dallas Cowboys receiver, the same interpretation cannot be applied to the phrase "Pull your pants up!", which was shouted at him by security guards in a fancy Dallas mall this week. There was no metaphor.

They just wanted him to pull up his trousers, the waistband of which was riding somewhere around his thighs in that "gangsta" style beloved of jailbirds, idiots and potty-training children worldwide.

There followed a furious row which led to Bryant's ejection from the mall. This is not the first time an athlete's fashion sense has ruffled some feathers.

From David Beckham's sarong to Frank Lampard's hot-pink vest to Djibril Cisse's entire wardrobe, athletes can be scrutinised as much for their threads off the pitch as their threaded passes on it.

As ever, I have a solution.

Why not introduce a rule in which a player can be randomly stopped at any moment during the week and ordered to wear that exact outfit for their next match?

Who would not like to see Dez Bryant running for a pass with his jeans around his knees, or Beckham trying to deliver a free kick in a sarong?

Plus, the crowd could re-visit that quaint old saying of my youth: "Come on you lot, pull your socks up. And then, number 11, tuck your tie-dyed, bias-cut, silk harem pants into them - the drag is slowing you down."