Ben Barba: the long and winding road

Date: February 27, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

The situation surrounding Canterbury’s superstar full-back Ben Barba is a sad one, made more so by the fact that it is being played out in public.

If ever there was to be a validation of the oft-used saying, ‘sport is a microcosm of life’, this is it.

What Barba is now forced to face is the type of issue that tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen and women have, and are currently, facing.

For the vast majority, the personal battle with their inner demons is one fought in the shadows – loved ones, friends, work and sporting colleagues may well be aware of an individual’s plight – but, in the main, it is very much a quarantined affair.

Ben Barba does not have that ‘luxury’.

A poster boy for the NRL – indeed the man who was going to be the face of the code at the season launch – has now become an inadvertent poster boy for a problem that confronts so many Australians.

Having to live out his recovery in a fish bowl is certainly not ideal but alas it is what comes with holding a position of such public profile.

One thing is for sure, Barba is not an orphan, more a sportsman who is now on a well- trodden path.

Australian sport is littered with examples of men who know exactly how Barba is now feeling – Brendan Fevola, Barry Hall, Mark Bosnich, Andrew Symonds, Todd Carney, Andrew Johns, Ben Cousins, etc, etc. – all heroes to thousands who had to overcome their inner demons.

Barba’s personal nadir came on the weekend when he told a trainer mid-game that he simply didn’t want to be out there.

That is a massive call for a sporting star to make – harder in many ways because it is the sporting environment itself that often serves as the one area where life feels controlled.

Whilst in the club and sporting environment there is a large degree of structure and shared expectation, the same cannot be said for the time that is endured whist outside that cocoon.

And, given there are 168 hours in a week, the time where a sportsman is left to fend for himself, and largely choose his own path, outweighs the time he spends in the relative ‘safety’ of the sporting environment many-fold.

Sadly today there will be a mix of both sympathy and anger with regard to Barba’s situation.

Many will feel sorry for the plight he finds himself in. Some, in fact, may empathise having been at one time in the very same position.

However others will be seething, simply because one of their sporting heroes – one of those whose on-field achievements govern their own personal biorhythm according to how well he plies his trade on the weekend –  has fallen from his lofty perch.

Such a demise is often met with unnecessary vitriol and a lack of a rationale.

Barba’s world, at least as we know publicly, has spiralled out of control following his sensational rags-to-riches season last year.

The breakdown of his relationship in November last year to his childhood sweetheart, and mother of his two daughters, was perhaps a nebulous to the current storm.

What is known is that Barba’s behaviour since the 2012 season has rapidly run off the rails – binge drinking and problem gambling are two things that have been highlighted.

Last week he moved in, on his own, to a rented flat.

All of these issues have simply compounded his situation.

As a result of his errant behaviour the Canterbury-Bulldogs have placed Barba on ongoing ‘leave’.

His return to the field will largely be governed by medical professionals who will need to be satisfied that he has reached a point where reintegration with his sport is the right course of action.

Bulldogs CEO, Todd Greenberg said yesterday, ‘it could be six weeks, it could be six months’ before he returns.

While the fans will find it agonizing, they need to spare a thought for Barba himself.

The next few months will be hard.

Stripping back the layers and rebuilding your life is not an easy step.

I know.

After largely ignoring signs as to my own mental illness for far too long my life spiralled out of control in mid-2011 to the point that I threw in my dream job and subsequently made an attempt on my own life.

My plight absorbed newspaper centimetres and television airtime and I am very much small fry compared to Ben Barba.

From experience if I could give him any advice, it would be to gather around him those who are his true friends.

It is at a time like this that you really find out who they are.

Rely on them, concede in them, make them part of your journey.

Seek all the necessary help you need and take each day at a time.

But, most importantly, hold your head high.

What you are currently feeling is the same sensation that so many others do each and every year – a lack of control.

Millions have successfully made the walk from the dark into the light.

Ben Barba will hopefully be just one more of them.

And when he does conquer his demons we should all be there to congratulate him.

It is not an easy road, it will be dotted with potholes.

But, almost without doubt, the person who emerges through the other side will be a far better one.

I wish you luck Ben.

And hopefully every other sports fan in the country feels similarly.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 26 February 2013