In 1981, Justin Fashanu became the first ever black football player to be sold for over £1 million when he transferred from Norwich to Nottingham Forest. His fame and status increased exponentially and he continued to face significant attention from the media throughout his career, particularly regarding his sexuality.
Fashanu came out to the press in 1990, becoming the first ever openly gay professional footballer. He was often targeted by football supporters for his sexuality and his relationship with his Nottingham Forest manager, Brian Clough, also deteriorated.
Clough recalled in his autobiography that he was disturbed by rumours of Fashanu going to gay nightclubs. When Clough discovered Fashanu’s homosexuality he barred him from training with the rest of the team. Subsequently, Fashanu was never able to recover the good form that he had shown at his first club, Norwich.
Tragically, in 1998, Fashanu was charged with the sexual assault of a 17-year-old boy and the media coverage it was given due to his status as a sportsman drove him to commit suicide.
Fashanu’s death was ultimately linked to the attention that the media gave to his sexuality, as he wrote in his suicide note that he did not want to give “any more embarrassment to [his] friends and family.”
This example clearly shows how sports players have often been targeted by fans and the media for personal issues and how that attention can seriously damage their mental health.
Whilst this example may seem a dated one, Fashanu remains the only professional British footballer to have ‘come out’, suggesting that there have not been significant changes in the 19 years following his death.
Indeed, there are still clear examples in sports today of athletes’ mental health being affected by fans and the media.
In 2013 Rebecca Adlington would not wear a swimsuit on television, despite being a professional swimmer, due to body image anxiety and criticism from the press.
Meanwhile, Rugby World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson has also spoken of his depression due to the pressures of the sport.
It is therefore clear that mental health is a critical issue for sportsmen and women for a wide range of reasons. The most common factor, however, is the pressure of the media.
The importance of Mental Health and Wellbeing Week is particularly relevant in the world of sport, as it is often too easy to forget that there is a person beneath the images that are presented on the television screens and in the media.
Sports stars are expected to be role models for fans and aspiring athletes, which comes with great pressure and responsibility. Fans and journalists often seem to forget that what they say has a personal impact, particularly when offering critiques of an individual.
Many athletes nowadays are still young people who are not necessarily accustomed to the harsh reality of the mainstream media and the general public.
Alongside their feats in sports, they will undoubtedly have their own personal issues to deal with, which should not be ignored.
Fashanu’s tragic story is a clear example of the negative impact that the media and the pressures of being a sports person can have on an individual.
Regardless of whether Fashanu was guilty of his suggested crime, he was undoubtedly pushed to suicide, as he stated, by the “embarrassment” that the media brought to him and those close to him.
Even in his earlier career, the backlash that he faced for being gay from tabloids and fans had a clear and marked impact on his life and wellbeing.
The story of Fashanu’s suicide may be almost 20 years old, but the message that it carries remains extremely pertinent.
Sports figures are under a great deal of pressure and scrutiny from the media and public and their mental health can easily be damaged.
Image Courtesy of Grant Stantiall