The Tragedy of Dan Vickerman

What happens to a sports hero when the crowds go home?

Have you ever spent extended time with family and friends and then suddenly you were on your own again, doing mundane things? What did it feel like – that jolt from a kind of elevated communion to sudden quiet?

I think a neglected truth about being human is that we actually battle with transitions.

A few years back, I had two children, moved house four times, changed jobs twice, moved provinces, all in the space of just over two years. In the midst of this, I also had gunmen in my house.

Months later, I was burnt out.

Psychologists say even if we go through a multitude of good or even great life events, too many in too short a space of time will cause major stress in your life.

I think many people may experience this in retirement. You work for an institution. You are surrounded by people with a common task – and then one day you wake up with nowhere to go and nothing to do. You may be at home, on the beach, with family – in good surroundings. Yet still something gnaws within.

Some days ago, I woke up and saw on the news that Australian rugby player Dan Vickerman had died. Vickerman grew up in Cape Town, went to Bishops, and played for the Junior Springboks – before he moved to Australia and had an immensely successful rugby career.

He was not a typical player either. He took years out of his career at one stage to study at Cambridge. He invested in a life beyond rugby.

I was puzzled as to why news reports did not reveal the cause of his death – they read simply he had died suddenly in non-suspicious circumstances.

I later discovered that for some reason the Australian press does not like speaking about suicide – apparently there is some fear that referring specifically to suicide glamourizes taking one’s own life – like anti-drug movies often inspire drug-taking.

I was stunned to realise Vickerman had killed himself.

The man is famous, married with two young children, wealthy, educated, and had a good job in finance and property development. Apparently he was still involved in club rugby and representing the rugby players’ organisation in Australia. How could such a man take his life? What went wrong?

A friend of Vickerman’s asked the following questions after his death:

“What happens when the stadium lights are turned off on our careers and when the fans find someone new to cheer for? Does our training help or hinder us in preparation for life after sport?”

Vickerman knew these questions. But perhaps could not face the answers.

New Zealand’s great rugby writer, Mark Reason, wrote a chilling article in the shadow of his death, when he wondered whether “a cult of silence” is not killing the game’s young men.

Reason notes the growing list of young players either dying from strange illnesses or suffering depression – men like Joost van der Westhuizen, Jonah Lomu, Sione Lauauki, and former Chiefs player David Briggs, who says, “I don’t think I will ever be right. I accept I will have depression for the rest of my life and a lot of memory loss.”

Briggs talks about a world of seeking glory, taking creatine, getting large at gym, and shaking off concussion after concussion – and, for whatever reason, dealing with depression as a result.

Reason worries that the rugby community is simply not allowed to do the necessary introspection which would call into question an assumed healthiness and desirability in being a sports star. When one has all these trappings, and they don’t satisfy as promised, or they are taken away suddenly, it seems the results can be catastrophic.

As a teacher, and schoolboy sports coach, I think about this quite a bit.

I worry and wonder how ‘the magnificent irrelevancy’ of sport is treated as a business, as marketing, with little concern for bigger life issues.

I find among many coaches this tacit agreement that by preparing boys for professional sport, somehow they will make it, they will transcend the drudgery of a life of teaching, for instance.

But should we place the gladiator-esque world of professional sport, the arbitrary business of putting a ball behind a line, on such a pedestal?

Think of all the sportsmen who have had tragic downfalls, besides Vickerman, in recent years. Think of Oscar Pistorius, Hansie Cronje, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods. Was sport good for these people? Andre Agassi admits in his autobiography that his big secret throughout his life was that he hated playing tennis.

Now I know for many sport provides a kind of redemption – the health of outdoors life, camaraderie, and certainly this destructiveness is not true of all sportsmen – look at Federer, for example. The man seems to thrive while doing his craft. But on the other hand, it seems almost as though the balance has shifted in recent years – as though stories of sportsmen living healthy and fulfilling lives have become rarer and rarer.

Of course, no profession or lifestyle can ever ultimately protect one from the strains of simply being human. We all fight secret wars. But, at the end of the day, the tragedy of Dan Vickerman should all give us pause as we watch sport again this weekend on TV.

What happens when the crowds go home, and the gladiator is left alone?