Footballers Are People Too


This year has seen a series of drug-related scandals in Australia’s two major football codes, the Australian Football League (AFL) and the National Rugby League (NRL). These scandals have been beaten up by a media circus, which has itself fed a frenzy of moral hypocrisy, led (predictably) by the Federal Government.

The two biggest scandals have centred on West Coast Eagles superstar Ben Cousins in the AFL, and Newcastle Knights superstar Andrew Johns in the NRL.

Following his arrest in London for possession of an ecstasy tablet in August, Johns who retired earlier this year publicly ‘confessed’ to being a regular user of the illicit drug for many years (although rarely during footy season); while Cousins missed most of the AFL season after he sought rehabilitation for a reputed methamphetamines addiction.

Cousins made a triumphant return to the game in July, playing to a home crowd at Subiaco Oval, with a remarkable best-on-ground performance that saw him collect 38 possessions. He has repeatedly tested negative for drugs since. However on 17 October he was arrested and charged with possession of a valium tablet without a prescription. He was sacked immediately from his club and the AFL made it clear the 29-year-old will almost certainly never be allowed to play again.

The charge was subsequently dropped (valium is not a prohibited substance), with Cousins’s lawyer recommending he take legal action against the police and the Eagles.

The Howard Government used the occasion of Cousins’s arrest to repeat its push for the AFL to toughen its policy on illicit drug use. ‘Anyone who thinks that the AFL is doing enough in relation to drugs in their sport in view of the events that have just happened is kidding themselves,’ Federal Sports Minister George Brandis said, according to an 18 October article in The Age. Howard was quoted urging the courts to be ‘as tough as possible’ on illicit drug use.

Predictably, Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd jumped on the bandwagon, calling for sports administrators to ‘get their act together,’ and threatening that unless competitions got tougher, an ALP Government might impose a harsher national policy on all sports.

Much of the media coverage has used the issue to beat the ‘war on drugs’ drum. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph used Cousins’s arrest to call for a crackdown on illicit drug use, opining editorially that: ‘It is time we stopped lionising drug abusing sports œstars  such as Ben Cousins and Andrew Johns.’

Meanwhile, The Age sports commentator Greg Baum pontificated that Cousins had only himself to blame for his downfall and that: ‘It is hard to think that there has been a greater git in the history of Australian sport.’ (Has Baum ever heard of Shane Warne?)

When Cousins first sought treatment for addiction, former player and coach Robert Walls went so far as to declare the Eagles ‘evil.’

The arguments are circular and self-perpetuating. It is said Cousins’s career has been ‘destroyed by drugs,’ and that this shows the inherent ‘evilness’ of illicit drugs. What this ignores is that his career has only ended because society currently prohibits certain drugs and the media and politicians whip up moral hysteria about them.

Cousins clearly has a serious illness. However, if his addiction were to alcohol, while he would clearly need time to recover, his career would not automatically be over. Indeed, he may even be hailed a hero in a culture that ‘lionises’ alcohol abuse. If only Cousins and Johns were renowned for downing 50-plus cans of beer on a flight between Australia and England, as certain famous cricketers are.

The lack of compassion is stunning. Johns has made it clear he suffers from depression, to which his drug use was a response. He has been under intense pressure from a young age, living and playing in the Rugby League-mad city of Newcastle, where he had to carry on-field and off-field pressures and expectations. Yet, most commentary centred on the evils of illicit drug use.

In Cousins’s case it is even more shocking. Nine days before his arrest, Cousins helped carry the coffin at the funeral for his close friend, former Eagles player Chris Mainwaring, who had recently died a drug-related death. Mainwaring, who apparently played a key role in convincing Cousins to seek treatment for his drug problem, was visited by Cousins just hours before he died. Valium, which Cousins was wrongly arrested for possessing, is often used to cope with grief.

Sympathy for Cousins is muted because he has been a highly paid sportsperson in a city where he was treated as a god and had access to almost anything he wanted including high-quality drug rehabilitation. This is heightened in Perth, where opinions are highly polarised, between Eagles fans treating Cousins as a ‘golden child’ who can do no wrong, supporters of WA’s other AFL team, the less-powerful Fremantle Dockers, who see in Cousins all the arrogance of a team who appears to behave as badly with no repercussions.

However, this issue is about more than the drug habits of a couple of highly paid sports professionals. It is part of a deeply reactionary agenda that seeks to extend the control of the State over people’s personal lives, and further erode the rights of working people. There is a drive by employers in a range of industries to win the right to carry out drug and alcohol tests on their workers. Public hysteria over footballers putting the same poisons into their body as a large chunk of the population do, makes this drive easier. It also helps strengthen the ‘tough on drugs’ rhetoric of the Howard Government, enabling it to give police more powers to harass ordinary people, especially youth.

Beyond the manufactured glamour associated with being successful at booting an oval-shaped ball around a grass paddock, AFL and NRL players remain workers. They are paid to do a job for their employer the club they play for, which in turn is represented by the employers’ association, which is what the AFL and NRL amount to. This is why the players organise into their own trade union, known as players’ associations.

While the most successful footballers are well paid, many do it tough. It may be great to be paid to kick a footy around but, in this age of highly professionalised sports, players are essentially the property of their club, with extreme demands placed on their bodies and increasingly draconian restrictions on their personal lives. Players are expected to turn themselves into finely-tuned machines, but their careers can be ended suddenly through injury.

Once they are no longer useful to the club through age, injury, or failing they are cast adrift. Those with the highest profile can become media commentators, but many are forced to start from scratch. As the drive for profit grows, clubs attempt to squeeze the greatest amount possible out of the bodies they have purchased, heightening the risk of injury and shortening the average career length, as exhausted bodies give in more quickly.

The Government is pushing to intensify the drug testing regime on sports players. In the AFL, this would mean undermining a player’s privacy by removing the ‘three strikes’ rule by which a player’s name is withheld from the press the first two times they test positive to a banned substance. Also, players currently have a six-week
period at the end of the season when they are free from drug testing. The Government wants the AFL to subject players to year-round tests.

Faced with strong opposition from the AFL Players Association, the AFL has not yet caved in to Government pressure. Repeating his opposition to attempts to ‘toughen’ AFL drugs rules, AFL Players Association head Brendan Gale said the Association would support Cousins as he battled ‘a very serious illness.’

The problem is that there is no distinction between testing for performance-enhancing drugs (which is perfectly legitimate) and testing for recreational drugs that have no relation to on-field performance. The argument that sports players are role models is hypocritical. If the media are so concerned about the effect on young people of reports that their sporting heroes sometimes swallow or snort a drug, then they should refrain from reporting it. They should refrain from reporting it anyway on the principle that players have a right to privacy and anything that doesn’t directly relate to their role as a sports player is not relevant to the public.

The media and politicians know full well that sports players are not a different species. Drug use is widespread in our society, although it is mostly alcohol and tobacco not because these drugs are less dangerous (they aren’t) but because they are legal and easily accessible. Both football codes have long been associated with an unhealthy culture of alcohol abuse (indeed Johns appears to have abused alcohol more than illicit drugs) without the same hysteria. AFL Chief Executive Andrew Demetriou told The Australian on 31 July: ‘Alcohol abuse is a far bigger problem in football than the issue of illicit drugs. We have no doubt about that.’

But a cynical game is being played where getting caught using the wrong sort of drug is the cue for a round of public pillorying and voyeuristic gossip that increases profits for media corporations and gives an excuse for chest-beating by politicians.

If a player is caught using an illegal drug, it is at most an issue for police and courts. Given that illicit drugs are only illegal due to the failed policy of prohibition (which doesn’t stop people from using those drugs but makes them expensive and dangerous to access), the real problems are medical and social. It seems clear that Cousins suffers from the illness of addiction, just as Johns suffers from the illness of depression. Both can be overcome, although Cousins’s road to recovery has been made more difficult by the destruction of his career, and Johns recently fled his hometown of Newcastle due to the public furore following his ‘confession.’

There is a broader problem relating to the working conditions imposed on footballers in both codes, which are conducive to the development of mental health and drug problems. From their late teens, players are expected to put their full-time effort into their sporting profession. It leaves them little space to develop as adults in a more rounded way. When not playing or training, they have large amount of spare time. Such a distorted development can accentuate problems of alienation, especially when the media spotlight and adulation from fans is added to the mix.

To play for another club, Cousins would have to get AFL permission, something likely to be denied. The media and Government hysteria has damaged their ‘brand,’ and, as great a player as Cousins remains, he is more a liability than an asset for the profit-driven business the AFL is running. This is a key factor in the decision of the Eagles to sack a player the Club President referred to as the club’s ‘greatest.’

But the club has little choice not just because the AFL had already threatened heavy sanctions if an Eagles player ‘transgressed’ (read: got caught and caused bad publicity) again, but also because corporate sponsors were threatening to pull out. The mighty dollar is worth more than Cousins’s right to play at the top level and for fans to enjoy his performances a tragedy for the game, especially as his manager told the media he had been attempting to arrange a move to Melbourne, away from the pressures and influences contributing to his personal problems.

It is also a tragedy because it would have given the mighty Essendon Bombers a chance to make up for their atrocious decision to sack one of the AFL’s greatest ever coaches Kevin Sheedy and move quickly to fix the Bombers’ current lack of pace in the midfield by picking up a true, if flawed, champion.

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