The NRL community has expressed shock over former great-turned broadcaster Ben Ikin’s view that league players should step down and play park footy if their mental health is affected by the media attention that comes with being a high-profile athlete.
Mental health issues have once again been in the foreground of the NRL community this week after Broncos star Darius Boyd came out and said the constant scrutiny Latrell Mitchell receives from the media couldn’t be good for his frame of mind.
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In a seperate incident, earlier this week Rabbitohs star James Roberts checked himself back into a rehabilitation clinic for mental health reasons.
This prompted Ikin to write a column for Fox Sports where he acknowledged the ‘challenge’ that comes with being a high-profile NRL star, which can compound one’s mental health issues.
In an article that featured the headline ‘If NRL is bad for your mental health, there’s always park footy’, Ikin shared the view that the media attention comes hand-in-hand with the code’s fortunes in Australia.
He said if players loved the game, but didn’t want the scrutiny, they could step back and play park footy.
“At what point does the responsibility fall on the individual to say, this job might not be for me, I don’t like the pressure or scrutiny, it’s not good for my mental health, so I’ll find a job where those forces don’t exist,” he wrote for Fox Sports.
“Or conversely, choose to play rugby league minus all the fanfare, it’s called community football.”
He went on to claim professional sport isn’t for everyone.
“It’s not a right, it’s not a privilege, it’s just a job that can be very difficult, especially for those who have a chink in their mental or emotional armour,” he wrote.
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However, the article appeared to anger multiple stars in the game that have dealt with their own challenges throughout their careers.
Indigenous All-Star and Manly forward Joel Thompson, who suffers from Bipolar disorder, addressed a letter to Ikin claiming his NRL platform has allowed him to also help others that are just as vulnerable.
He hoped anyone struggling could use his story as an example that they can aim big and play in the NRL.
“It has given me the greatest life,” he wrote.
“It’s also given me a real purpose to help our most vulnerable people. Should I have quit for park footy?
“Or embraced the support given to me in this position? [The] Healthiest and happiest I could ever be.
“I’m still in shock you’ve made this public.”
— Joel Thompson (@joel_thompson12) May 13, 2020
Cronulla Sharks star Josh Dugan labelled Ikin’s view as “brain dead” considering how far society has come with supporting mental health issues.
I have no doubt it was tough as nails back in the day but this day and age with the things we know now and what studies have shown plus the pressures we as not only players but humans go through this comment is just brain dead 🤦🏻♂️ https://t.co/DCkNQNuPaY
— Josh Dugan (@Josh_Dugan) May 13, 2020
Punters and commentators also slammed Ikin’s comments on social media.
Ben ikin should not have a platform.. @FOXNRL how can you stand behind a man with undeducated takes like this?
— Ⓜ️ Scatman Ⓜ️ (@scotto31888) May 13, 2020
— #RachelLegzxx (@RachelLegzxx) May 14, 2020
The comments made by the one they call Ben Ikin are incredibly insensitive and very frustrating. A very prime example of toxic masculinity. Reduce the stigma of men’s mental health, if your first thought is “they should play park footy.” Then you’re part of the problem.
— Ashlee (@_itsashleeee_) May 14, 2020
NRL stars support Mitchell, Roberts
The young Rabbitohs star has been in the spotlight for weeks after he was recently fined for breaching social-distancing protocols.
His return to for training was keenly watched, which also prompted Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds and coach Wayne Bennett to slam the media.
And South Sydney will persist with Mitchell at fullback when the NRL resumes with the star recruit to stay put despite the absence of Roberts.
Souths players maintained their support of Roberts on Wednesday after the NSW State of Origin centre checked himself into a rehabilitation facility for personal reasons.
Cook said the Rabbitohs were willing to give Roberts as long as required with many people struggling with a lack of routine and structure during the COVID-19 shutdown.
"I'm very proud of James on what he has done," Cook said.
"He realised the situation he was in and reached out for help.
"As a mate, I am not too worried about James Roberts the football player at the moment.
"He can take all the time he needs and once he comes back he will be welcome with open arms."