A few years ago, when a reporter asked me for Kieran Foran’s mobile number, I passed it on to him. I’d already checked with Kieran if that was OK, but on reflection it was a wrong move.
That was in 2012, when I was the media manager of the Kiwi rugby league team and charged with ensuring that players like Kieran were generating headlines for the sport. And he was doing a good job of that. He’d been an NRL premiership winner with the Manly Sea Eagles and he was about to become one of New Zealand rugby league’s most-prized assets.
So it was no surprise when Stephen Kearney later asked Kieran to captain his country. Rugby league fans were already raving about the fresh-faced kid Shaun Johnson, who was sidestepping his way on to the scene at that time, and his potential long-term halves partnership with wise old Kieran. But they were only two months apart in age. There was a special maturity about the Manly man.
But maturity won’t necessarily carry you through the kind of year that Kieran has been trying to weather. He’s had a hell of a time. And he hasn’t needed a barrage of calls from journalists.
Among the pressures the 26-year-old has had to manage are these:
- Being the highest-profile signing for Parramatta in years
- Co-captaining the side (until losing that title)
- Working through a contract dispute with his previous club
- Seeing Parramatta embroiled in a salary cap scandal
- Having a season-ending shoulder injury
- Becoming a father for the second time
- Breaking up with his long-time partner
- Leaving the Eels mid-season
- Being linked with the Warriors for 2017
- Having his name connected to investigations into match-fixing
Kieran has been open about that last issue – as well as the cumulative effect of everything else going on.
“I want to assure you, I have done nothing wrong,” he said in September. “I took a break from the game because I felt I wasn't in the head space to uphold my commitments as a contracted footballer.
“I have been very open about my struggle with health issues and asked for time to concentrate on rebuilding my life.”
Kieran’s had to deal with all that while under an intense media gaze. In his own words he's been "incredibly disappointed in the media prying into my personal life." So, in many ways, the bigger surprise would have been if he hadn’t hit rough waters. Having special abilities on the field doesn’t spare you from the same challenges the rest of us face off it.
The physical pressures athletes are under are easier for people to comprehend. NRL players receive, and dish-out, a battering each week. Sometimes body parts don’t cope. Many hands are on deck to get repairs done quickly. And then the athletes get out there once more.
Bang! It all starts again.
Kieran’s physical toughness is one of the many reasons for his standing in the game. Perhaps that influenced the perception of how much he should be able to digest off-field. But how do we measure the build-up of non-physical pressure on athletes?
People in most parts of society can quietly find a way to deal with their personal challenges – which stay personal. Many athletes don’t have that luxury. They’re expected to talk regularly with the media. That connection between fans and athletes is one of sport’s greatest beauties – and long may it continue. It’s a large part of what fuels the multi-billion dollar broadcasting deals too.
But, in the course of that media and athlete exchange, the privacy of many athletes is getting shuffled way down the priority list. When it comes to phone calls, for example, some teams are regularly sharing athletes’ personal numbers with the media. Even athletes’ homes aren’t always sacred territory. And what happens for the likes of Kieran, when they find themselves without a club to support them while they’re the biggest story in the game? Are they just left to their own devices?
To deal with a host of challenges, including depression and suicide, many competitions are investing heavily now in player welfare. That includes the NRL in which Kieran has made his name.
But we all have a role to play in stepping back and appreciating that Kieran and others deserve space, like all of us, to try managing the challenges.
Back in February, when he was talking about starting at Parramatta, Kieran said:
“It’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it?”
He was right. And for him the real pressure was only just beginning.