This past week, heavyweight world champion Tyson Fury voluntarily vacated multiple titles on the grounds that he was “medically unfit” to compete due to mental illness. The British Board of Boxing Control has since suspended his boxing license in addition to stripping his World Boxing Organization, World Boxing Association and International Boxing Organization accolades.
There has already been a great deal of controversy surrounding Fury, who was accused of doping and doing cocaine last year. The former charge is currently under investigation by the UK Anti-Doping body.
His yearslong battle with manic depression only came to light this past month in a Rolling Stone interview, in which Fury admitted to using cocaine as a coping mechanism. He cited his increased visibility as the reason he sank so deeply into depression, and discussed the racial hatred he has faced as a Traveller, a term used for an ethnic group of people in the UK and Ireland who have historically faced discrimination
Today, Travellers are still denied service in many restaurants and parks. Fury’s championship win propelled him into the spotlight and has since exposed him to widespread targeting and abuse.
Although Fury still remains a controversial figure, the news of his mental illness has made many sympathetic to his situation and has also opened up questions about how different sports organizations manage their athletes’ mental health.
A recent article from BBC Sport explored this topic and found some encouraging information. For example, in the wake Wales Manager Gary Speed’s suicide in 2011, the Professional Footballers Association created guidelines on depression for its members and how to handle such situations. The organization also has a 24-hour helpline with 70 professional counselors available to talk to members suffering from mental illness.
Professional rugby also has a coherent support system for its athletes. Each Premiership Club and London Irish has a player development manager to help them with life outside of rugby, as well as courses on personal resilience and a 24-hour helpline. The Rugby Players Association is launching a campaign called “Lift the Weight” to highlight the importance of athletes’ well-being. Rugby league established its own program called State of Mind in 2011 after the death of player Terry Newton as well.
Professional sports put athletes under extremely high duress and it is not uncommon to find athletes suffering from mental health problems. A “Believe Perform” article referred to a recent study that found that more than a quarter of professional soccer players experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. Collegiate athletes also suffer from the combination of athletic and academic performance. The NCAA Sport Science Institute has committed to providing resources for stakeholders at involved universities to help athletes with their mental health. They have created a comprehensive e-book called “Mind, Body and Sport” that delineates the most common mental illnesses and how to address them.
As the conversation around mental health continues, it is important to create and improve these resources and make them easily accessible to the athletes who need them. The NCAA’s handbook even suggests that athletes with mental illness be considered “injured” in the same way that they would be injured from a physical ailment, highlighting the fact that mental health is just as important as physical health.
The boxing world has done little to no work on this front, which is why fighters like Fury have struggled so much with the negative consequences of mental illness. Perhaps if Fury had a support system within the sport, he would have been able to handle his disease in a healthier way. However, until the boxing world addresses these issues, fighters like Fury will continue to suffer and the sport risks losing some great athletes because of it.
Sinead Schenk is a senior in the College. A Level Playing Field appears every other Tuesday.