Jonathan Trott must be one of the strongest, most courageous people in sports. He proved that by trying to play his best cricket for England while battling mental illness and proved it again by then acknowledging that he couldn't, at least for now.
Trott's decision to come home early from England's tour of Australia so he can focus on recovering is a credit both to him and to cricket. It illustrates how sports are dealing better with mental health problems and, in doing so, helping to break down their long-associated stigmas.
Drug abuse, destructive addictions, self-harming, even suicide. For athletes who did not or could not seek help for their problems, those were the options for too many years. Alcohol robbed football of George Best and other players of their skills, health and futures. Cocaine poisoning killed Tour de France champion Marco Pantani in 2004. Four years ago this month, Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke ended his life by stepping in front of a train. His wife, Teresa, said Enke hid his depression because he feared losing everything if it became public.
How much better, then, to get a simple statement from the England and Wales Cricket Board saying that Trott has "a stress related illness" and is taking an indefinite break from cricket. That candor helped demonstrate that there's nothing here to be ashamed of. Talk in sports that athletes should just "man-up" and tough-out problems is dangerous, macho hogwash. Depression, anxiety and other mental health issues don't discriminate: they'll afflict anyone. Thankfully, sports are recognizing that, too.
"There's been a huge shift," said Amanda Owens, a sports psychologist who works with cricketers and is a consultant psychologist to the ECB. "Sports people were deemed to be these almost perfect human beings."
Speaking in a telephone interview, Owens said "it's a very positive thing for cricket, it's a positive thing for professional sport" that Trott felt able to leave his teammates in Australia. For Trott, saying goodbye to his friends when they're at a low cannot have been easy. England lost the first test by 381 runs, collapsing in both innings. The 32-year-old Trott, who has been such a rock for England in the past, clearly wasn't himself, out for 10 and 9 to Mitchell Johnson.
Trott acknowledged as much in the ECB's statement, saying: "I don't feel it is right that I'm playing knowing that I'm not 100 percent and I cannot currently operate at the level I have done in the past."
The timing could have left Trott open to unkind and ignorant accusations that his courage failed him in the face of aggressive Australian bowling and verbal bullying, that he was leaving his teammates and country in the lurch. But damn what people may think. Trott put himself first, as he should.
"That would have been a horrible decision for him to make," former England batsman Marcus Trescothick said on the BBC. Trescothick cut short his England career in 2008 because of his stress-related illness that made overseas travel nightmarish.
"It's debilitating. It grinds you down and just gets to you non-stop. There's no sort of hiding place from it," he said. "It takes into account nothing at all: what house you live in, what car you drive, what job you do, how much you get paid."
Trott "definitely made the right decision," Trescothick said. Touring is particularly taxing. Players are away for months on end, far from their kids to cuddle and partners and friends to share thoughts with. For England players, there is no more intense place to visit and compete against than Australia. The weeks away and the long days spent playing cricket also give mentally fragile players ample time to obsess and over-think any problems.
On Tour, "everything is just micro-scoped. It's such a tough place to be when a) you're not healthy and b) everyone is analyzing everything that you do," former New Zealand test cricketer Iain O'Brien said in a phone interview. He sought treatment for depression a few years ago after hearing a radio documentary about it.
"Being in the changing room or being away on Tour was one of the hardest parts of my career," he said. "Because you're locked in together so tight and I couldn't handle being around a lot of people." Some questioned whether England should have left Trott out of the team, given that coach Andy Flower acknowledged that "Jonathan has been struggling with this condition for quite a while."
But Trott shouldn't be faulted for trying, nor should England for letting him try. Ultimately, his courage in leaving could prove far more important that anything he might have accomplished had he stayed and suffered in silence.
"One of the first things I did was just search 'Trott' on Twitter, to see what the feeling out there was," O'Brien said. "And I was quite surprised by how much positivity there was."
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester