The Case for Weakness, by Tony Keenan
I don’t know Robbie McNamara. Any knowledge I have comes from watching him on television racing coverage, seeing him at Cheltenham previews or listening to him on podcasts. I want to think I can empathise with his situation to some degree, a horrific case of having something you love taken from you long before it was due, but maybe I can’t as the circumstances are so extreme. How the jockey chooses to deal with his injuries is at his own discretion but there is something in the coverage of his situation that has made me uneasy from the start. It has been too upbeat.
The issue here is not McNamara himself but the racing bubble we live in; we know no other way to tell the story. McNamara has been faced with savage injuries and framing them in a totally positive light could be a mistake. This is paralysis we’re talking about. I’m not saying these situations can only be grim and there is never any light for the victims but I do wonder about the sort of culture we are creating about how we deal with them; does everything need to be totally positive and where is the space for weakness?
The jockey’s lot is a tough one, perhaps the toughest in professional sport. They face a demanding lifestyle: early mornings, extensive travel, surviving on the junk food that is the only thing available at motorway services after an evening meeting. For many, the job is not financially rewarding and then there is the wasting, perhaps worst of all. In a world where we are all getting bigger with advances in nutrition and medicine, there is something warped about a life where three meals a week and hot baths are the norm.
This wouldn’t be so bad if they got some respect but as PJA chief executive Paul Struthers pointed out just last week, jockeys are the victims of institutional under appreciation. They are the small people at the mercy of the whims of the big power of owners, trainers and racing authorities. Instead of being treated like the talent, they are often seen as a necessary inconvenience, many racecourses unable to even provide proper food on both sides of the Irish Sea.
This is a hard sport and I’m reminded of the words of an old headmaster and racing fan when he said ‘there are no soccer players here.’ At any given race meeting, only six or seven jockeys can win and the mental toll of such failure, along with the daily rigours they face, has to be hard to take. Dr Philip Pritchard, the GP of choice for many of Britain’s top jump jockeys, conducted a study last year in which 15 of the 20 volunteer jockeys could have been diagnosed with depression and while those statistics may be skewed by sample size issues, the number is striking if not surprising.
And yet, the only reference I can remember to this illness, beyond the vagaries of comments about ‘dark days’ here and there, was young Irish jockey Mark Enright earlier this year. Frankly, it is inconceivable that Enright is the only jockey that suffers from depression but no one else has been able to speak publicly about it and the reason is obvious: it would be perceived as a sign of weakness in the hardest of sports. I doubt any rider wants to be known as mentally fragile, especially when the rides are being doled out.
The constant threat of injury, particularly for national hunt jockeys, is another frightening aspect of jockeys’ lives. Injuries are never pleasant but broken bones heal, no matter how crookedly. Paralysis is the scary one as not only does it take away your livelihood but also so much more. That harrowing details of Robbie McNamara’s injury have been covered but perhaps not in enough detail; it’s not that I want to know about the day-to-day hardships faced by someone in a wheelchair but that I might need to. And there are things here that we don’t want to read about, from bed sores to incontinence, but these are the realities of a paralysis sufferer and it would be unusual not to feel frail and weak and scared in such situations.
There are those that would argue that the only way to deal with all this is machismo. The wider McNamara family have been visited with more than their share of racing tragedy, Robbie’s injuries coming not far behind those of his cousin John Thomas. Reading their interviews, both McNamaras have taken a similar stoical approach to their situations. It has been notable that neither wanted their families crying around them while Robbie commented in a recent RTE broadcast that he wanted to have the same ‘manly’ attitude that John Thomas had to his difficulties. Maybe we need our sporting heroes to be like this because they are so different to the rest of us – it is only mere mortals who cry – and racing breeds this sort of attitude into its participants with the daily hardships it brings.
But so much of this seems like conforming to an expected norm and there is no more conformist sport than racing. Can you imagine an openly gay jockey? Not for a long time in Ireland [Jack Duern recently ‘came out’ in UK, Ed.]. We haven’t even got a jockey with facial hair. Inside this world, expecting people to display weakness openly is a pipe dream and that can’t be helpful for those who live in the bubble or indeed wider society; what is so wrong with admitting you might be scared? Why pretend everything is alright when it isn’t?
Social media has added another layer to all this. There is argument that people suffering from terminal illness benefit from making others aware of their predicaments through the likes of Twitter and Facebook; studies suggest that it’s a help psychologically. But no one can argue that our lives in social media are filtered. We project an ideal self, the idea that we are all successful and happy, but this sort of posturing cannot be healthy, especially for someone facing a tough time. You dare not be the one on social media that tweets out negativity, for fear that you would drag others down or, more pointedly, spoil the charade that we’re all successful and happy.
In truth, this becomes a vicious rather than a virtuous circle where many people are pretending all the time, social media being anything but the site for your true self. And isn’t that sort of pretence an act that creates a gap between reality and public persona, just the sort of thing that promotes mental illness?
There needs to be a space for weakness. As with any person, sportspeople are free to deal with their problems in any which way they choose but they shouldn’t feel any responsibility to put forward an image that they are flawless and nor should the media feel they have to cover it in a certain way. There is more than one way to deal with adversity, and just because you are broken for a time does not mean it will always be so.