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Drugs, sport, hypocrisy and hysteria (the case of Ben Cousins)

[This is an opinion piece i have written on the repeated drugs in sports scandals this year, come to a head again in recent days with the arrest and sacking of AFL star Ben Cousins in Perth. I wrote it too late (and it is currently bit too long) for next issue of GLW, so I am sending it out here while issue is still hot — Stuart]

Drugs, sport, hypocrisy and hysteria

Stuart Munckton

This year has seen a series of scandals, amounting to a supposed ``crisis'', on the role of illicit drugs in the two major football codes in Australia, the Australian Football League (aussie rules) and the National Rugby League. These scandals have been beaten up by a frenzied media circus, which has itself fed a frenzy of moral hypocrisy led, predictably, by the federal Howard government.

While there has been an ongoing series of scandals, the biggest have centred on two greats of each code, West Coast Eagles superstar Ben Cousins in the AFL, and recently retired 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 the season), while Cousins missed most of the AFL season after he sought rehabilitation for a reputed methamphetamines addiction.

Cousins had made a triumphant return to the game in round 15, playing to a home crowd at Subiaco Oval, with a remarkable best-on-ground performance that saw him collect 38 possessions (one short of his career best). He has repeatedly tested negative for drugs since, however on October 17 he was arrested by police and charged with possession of a valium tablet without a prescription. He was sacked immediately afterwards 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' lawyer recommending he take legal action against the police and the Eagles.


The Howard government used the occasion to repeat its push for the AFL to significantly 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'', sports minister George Brandis said according to an October 18 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. The Sydney Daily Telegraph used Cousins' recent arrest to call for a law-and-order crackdown on illicit drug use. Its October 17 editorial opined ``It is time we stopped lionising drug abusing sports `stars’ such as Ben Cousins and Andrew Johns’’.

Meanwhile the Melbourne Age sports commentator Greg Baum pontificated on October 18 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''. (Does Baum seriously expect us to believe he has never heard of Shane Warne?)

When Cousin's first sought treatment for addiction, former player and coach, now media commentator, Robert Walls went as far as to declare the Eagles ``evil''.

The arguments involved are circular and self perpetuating. It is said Cousins’ career has been ``destroyed by drugs’’, and that this shows the inherent ``evilness’’ of illicit drugs. What it ignores is that Cousins’ career has only been finished because society currently prohibits illicit drugs and the media and politicians whip up moral hysteria about them. Cousins clearly has a seriously illness caused by his abuse of a drug currently prohibited. However, if his addiction was 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 are certain famous cricketers.

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 Cousin's case it is even more shocking. Nine days before his arrest, Cousins helped carry the coffin during 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.

For some, sympathy for Cousins' is muted because he has been a highly paid sportsperson in a city, Perth, where he was treated as a virtual god and has access to almost anything he wanted — including access to high-quality drug rehabilitation denied many ordinary addicts. In Perth, opinions among football fans are particularly polarised, with some Eagles fans treating Cousins as a ``golden child’’ who can do no wrong, while others, such as supporters of Perth’s other AFL team, the less-powerful Fremantle Dockers, see in Cousins all the arrogance of the Eagles who have appeared to be able to behave as badly as they like with no repercussions.

Anti-worker agenda

However, the issues are 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 in general, and further erode the rights of working people. There is a drive by employers to increasingly win the right to carry out drug and alcohol tests on their workers in a range of industries. The public hysteria about footballers putting the same poisons into their body as a large chunk of the population makes this drive easier. It also helps strengthen the ``tough on drugs'' rhetoric of the Howard government, enabling it to help give more powers to the police 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 are well paid for their services, many do it tough. It may seem like a great deal 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 all year round. Players are expected to devote their lives to turning themselves into finely-tuned machines, while their careers can be ended suddenly through injury.

Once they are no longer useful to the club — through age, injury, or if their performance is not considered good enough — they are cast adrift. The highest-profile can make a career as a media commentator, but many are forced to start from scratch after having spent their entire adult lives doing nothing but the thing they can no longer do. 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 quicker.

The government is pushing to intensify the drug testing regiment on sports players. In the AFL, this would mean undermining a players privacy by removing the ``three strikes'' rule by which a players 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'', according to the Age.


The problem is there is no distinction between testing for performance-enhancing drugs, which is perfectly legitimate, and drugs used for recreational purposes 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 that reports 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, but part of the society around them. Drug use is widespread in 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 July 31 that: ``Alcohol abuse is a far bigger problem in football than the issue of illicit drugs. We have no doubt about that.''

Instead a cynical game is played whereby all involved use as much or as little drugs as the society around them, but 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.

In as far as a drug a player is caught using is illegal, 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 use of those drugs but makes them most expensive and dangerous), the real problems are medical and social. It seems clear Cousins suffers from the illness of addiction, just as Johns suffers from the illness of depression. Both can be overcome, although Cousins 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 furor 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 they are expected to fill themselves. 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 to enter the draft, 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''. This is a big call given that until the end of this season, the Eagles included another all-time great, Chris Judd. That Judd had already departed makes the decision to sack Cousins all the more costly in on-field terms.

However, the club has little choice, not just as the AFL had already threatened heavy sanctions if an Eagles player ``transgressed'' (read: get caught and cause bad publicity) again, but also because corporate sponsors were threatening to pull-out. The mighty dollars is worth more than the right of Cousins 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 Cousins' personal problems.

It is also a tragedy because it would have given the board members at the mighty Essendon Bombers a chance to make up for their atrocious decision to sack one of the league'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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