The issues raised by ex-Edinburgh and Scotland player Nick De Luca last week spoke to the relationship between professional sportspeople, those they seek to entertain and those who consequently pass comment on their performances, whether casually or more formally.

On the one hand there would be little point in anyone watching sport if it did not excite and incite reaction and that, in turn, is bound to have an impact upon those towards whom any criticism is directed, while the payment of performers contributes significantly to the nature of the criticism. 

The difference that makes was once summed up to me, in the very earliest days of professional rugby, by another former international centre, David Johnston, who was, at the time, almost uniquely placed to pass comment on the change that had taken place when the sport went open in 1995.

A member of Scotland’s 1984 Grand Slam winning side, Johnston had been a midfielder with Hearts in the seventies, so had experience of playing sport at elite level as both a professional and as an amateur. His words stuck with me, partly because of their slight unusualness, but principally because they spoke to what most would view as a core truth, when he told me that an amateur sportsman had “an inalienable right to fail,” but that a professional does not.

In essence he was pointing out that those who are giving up their spare time to give of the best they can muster have different responsibilities to those paid full-time to be the best they can possibly be. Professional sport is part of the entertainment business and in that regard parallels might be drawn with others paid to divert us from the routine of daily life; actors, musicians, dancers, comedians etc.

However, while stand-ups may still have their share of hecklers to deal with, we have moved on from the days when those staging theatrical performances ran the risk of being loudly jeered or pelted with rotten fruit if their efforts were not deemed worthy of the entry money.

In that context few British sportspeople have to contend with the ugly callousness to which footballers have been exposed. The 30th anniversary of his recruitment by Rangers brought reminders of Mark Walters having fruit thrown at him while, much more recently, the choice of missiles thrown at Dean Shiels, mocking his disability, was similarly reprehensible. However, as De Luca pointed out in noting that: he had deleted his Twitter account; was offended by media criticism; and at times did not enjoy his work because of his relationship with coaches, there are many things that individuals can find hurtful.

De Luca suggested that more attention has been paid to this area in football than in rugby, but if so that is a relatively recent development. The pressure imposed upon sportspeople from all quarters and implications for their mental well-being is a subject that needs to be taken seriously, not least at a time when concern is being raised about the depression rates among men in their twenties as a whole.

Indeed, when drawing comparison with other sports it seems useful to remind ourselves that more than a quarter of a century has elapsed since former Wisden Cricket Monthly editor David Frith wrote an excellent, but disturbing book examining the disproportionate number of suicides among professional cricketers.

Ashes series apart, British cricketers rarely face the sort of criticism or abuse that footballers must contend with so it is clear that the pressures are by no means all generated externally. The nature of his interview, meanwhile underlined the impression formed during De Luca’s playing days that his at times prickly demeanour, was something of a coping mechanism in dealing with insecurities.

That is far from uncommon and he is quite right to call for the development of a greater awareness among those employing professional sportspeople of their duty of care.

Sadly, we know enough about how people behave in crowds or behind keyboards to know that the environment in which they operate is unlikely to change, so the emphasis probably has to be placed on providing the sort of support De Luca reckons has not been as available as it needs to be and, in particular, educating our sportspeople in better ways of insulating themselves.


There may be plenty of pressures applied to those who pursue individual sport, but exacerbating factors are involved in team sports. As passionate as we may be about an Andy Murray, a different form of emotional attachment is at play when “our team” is involved.

In the tribalism associated with that comes a sense of ownership which, in turn, means we feel entitled to demand high performance on behalf of what we see as little short of a cause and to demand removal from the fray of those failing to provide it, while heaven help those deemed to be contributing anything less than 100 per cent effort.

Fully ensuring that participants properly understand those thought processes may go some way towards helping them wit h their own.