Robert Enke and Depression in Professional Sportsmen


This week the football world was shocked by the suicide of Hannover 96 goalkeeper Robert Enke. Seemingly at the top of his career Enke was firmly established as the first choice stopper at one of Germany’s most respected clubs, and looked the favorite to be his country’s number one heading into the World Cup next summer in South Africa. That was before depression claimed his life after just thirty-two years.

It’s thought that Enke never fully recovered from the shock dealt to him by the death of his two-year-old daughter, Lara, due to complications from a heart defect. I’m not a parent, so out of respect to the Enke family I won’t even pretend to know that I understand what Robert was going through, I don’t. But that’s not what this piece is about.

Enke’s tragic death once again brings to light the issue of depression among sportsmen. No illness is fashionable, but especially not depression, and especially not among men. Men are supposed to be strong and tough, capable of handling anything. This is particularly true of athletes, as Mike Messner, professor of Gender Studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles explains in this fine piece written last year by the always excellent Dave Zirin: “Superman isn’t supposed to get depressed.”

I’m not accusing Enke of falling into this trap, a quiet family man and animal rights activist, he actually seemed quite the opposite, but this is a good time to discuss a problem that faces our society everyday.

North Americans will remember last year when it was reported that Vince Young mentioned suicide before disappearing for a night, reportedly in possession of a firearm. Young and his club, the NFL’s Tennessee Titans were quick to dismiss reports of depression as the media blowing things out of proportion. Whether or not Young was suffering from depression, we as a society missed an opportunity for a discussion about the illness which quietly claims many lives every year through suicide.

I’m a male, a male with depression. It took me awhile to admit my problem, I didn’t want to be seen as weak or feeble, like many men, I wanted to put up a facade of strength and masculinity. Since coming to terms with my depression I’ve found myself to be a lot more rational, and much more stable, something which has probably saved my life. Bouts with depression can leave you feeling useless, and if you don’t make your loved ones aware of what you’re dealing with it becomes impossible for them to assist you, and that assistance and moral support is vital to the fragile psyche of a depressed individual.

The difficulties of admitting to depression are magnified for professional athletes, in a world where bravado and hyper-masculinity can mean money, fame, endorsements and women, it becomes nearly impossible to admit to what many perceive as a weakness without realizing the courage it takes for a man to admit he has a problem.

For evidence that professional sports still has a long ways to go before claiming that it has an understanding of the disease, one has to look no further than NFL player Shawn Andrews, who the Philadelphia Eagles fined Andrews $15,000 for each day of practice he missed while suffering with the illness. Though the fans and media largely supported Andrews, it still showing a glaring misunderstanding of a potentially deadly disease among our sports teams.

Bayern Muinch – as polarizing a club as any – to their eternal credit seem to understand depression, and did their best to make sure that their formr midfield man Sebastian Deisler was able to get help in his battle with the disease. Ultimately, recurrent depression brought an end to Deisler’s career, but the awareness of the depression may have saved his life.

It’s important for us to remember Robert Enke as a husband, father, animal lover, and fan favorite, but we mustn’t forget what claimed his life, and we must use this as an opportunity to wage a battle against one of mankind’s biggest, and most silent killers.

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