Daw incident may reduce cynicism over footballers’ mental health

If a silver lining emerges from the troubling Majak Daw episode, it should be this: that there will be a better understanding and less cynicism about the mental health challenges facing the contemporary AFL player.

Daw's incident follows the best season of his 50-game career, in which a shift to defence helped the hyper-athletic 27-year-old develop into a consistent player. If he was struggling in aspects of his life, this was not reflected in his 2018 performances or demeanour at North Melbourne, which was genuinely shocked by the turn of events.

On-field, 2018 was Majak Daw ‘s best season in his AFL career.Credit:AAP

One immediate consequence of Daw's injuries has been that the spotlight has been turned to the emotional well-being of the modern AFL player, with more discussion of how to navigate the complexities of mental health.

The AFL will make it easier for clubs to hire psychologists or psychiatrists, as The Age has reported, but an equally important outcome might be that sections of the football public tone down the cynicism that surfaces whenever a player announces that he is suffering from depression, anxiety or alike.

A portion of this cynicism – most evident in the combative jungles of social media – derives from the fact that a few of the higher-profile players who've made their private agonies public have been struggling on the field.

The public announcements of Travis Cloke, Tom Boyd and Alex Fasolo coincided with on-field slumps. The scrutiny on Boyd and Cloke was accentuated by hefty contracts (which Cloke no longer owned when he went public) and the external expectation that accompanies big forwards who are paid to take marks and kick goals.

Broadly, the cynicism that surrounds "mental health'' in the AFL also is based upon the reality that those two words create a moral force field around the individual who suffers.

A player or individual afflicted with depression is – rightly – cut some slack. The media, by and large, recognises there is a boundary that shouldn't be breached; there are players running around today that are known to be suffering from depression/anxiety and whose situation has not been reported. This would not happen if the player had a bad groin or knee.

A separate source of public cynicism is that there is another hidden group of players – to be clear, this is quite distinct from Cloke, Boyd, Fasolo, Daw et al – who have overlapping mental health and substance abuse issues. The uncharitable reading is that mental health can be deployed as a shield for bad choices.

Daw's incident is a timely reminder that emotional or mental health demons can afflict anyone, that it can descend upon those who are playing well, that it can and has bedevilled many footballers, coaches, staff (and media people) whose pain isn't on display.

While much of the Daw story is unknown, and may well remain so, it's also worth noting the unique pressures that have accompanied him as the first Sudanese-born player who came to this country aged 12. In the absence of other visible Sudanese-Australians, Majak is treated by media as the member for the South Sudan.

Late in the footy season, I approached North Melbourne on behalf of a work colleague to ask if Majak was willing to comment on then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's commentary on African-Sudanese gangs (Turnbull, following Peter Dutton's agenda, had voiced "real concern" about the gangs). No comment was forthcoming. Unsurprisingly, that Daw wasn't opened up.

How many footballers, of any level, are spokesmen, standard bearers and role models for a migrant community and are expected to respond to a prime minister?

If you or someone you know needs help, contact: beyondblue 1300 224 636 or beyondbluebeyondblue.org.au; Suicide Line 1300 651 251; Mens Line 1300 789 978; Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.

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