Thursday, March 22, 2007
A sporting life
It's been a sad few days for we AFL fans with the news that one of the code's brightest stars - the West Coast Eagles' Ben Cousins - has been suspended from the club until he sorts out his "personal and private issues". In a statement issued by the West Coast Eagles, it was revealed that: "Ben has failed to fulfil his commitments as a professional member of the West Coast Eagles team to such a degree that his current situation is untenable ... It is with great sadness and regret that the club has been forced to take this action against a much-loved champion who has served this club with great distinction for more than a decade."
Speculation is rife in the Australian sports media about the exact nature of Cousins' "personal problems", with claims of "underworld" connections, "drug problems", "alcohol problems", problems coping with the end of a relationship - and the now too frequent reports of "brawls" and "arrests". Many of us remember the last time Cousins was stripped of the captaincy of the club - having fled from a booze bus in February of last year.
As "The Sydney Morning Herald" has reported: "Despite his litany of off-field troubles, Cousins remains West Coast's most-decorated player and an enormously popular figure in Perth. In addition to his  Brownlow medal victory, he has won four West Coast best and fairest awards, is a six-time All-Australian and was voted the 2005 Most Valuable Player by the AFL Players Association. He captained the Eagles 104 times from 2001-05."
I am a huge fan of the AFL. I was brought up barracking for South Melbourne and was heart-broken when they left Melbourne to become the Sydney Swans. I was club-less for many years until, having lived in St Kilda for some time, it suddenly made perfectly good sense to start supporting The Saints. I would take a taxi out to Waverley Park at the weekend to watch them play (a $50 fare) and be crammed into a bus to get back to St Kilda at the end of the match. Fantastic if we had won - and pretty dour if we hadn't. And we didn't win very often.
I feel for Ben Cousins. The kind of fame, finance, favours, following, fortune and status that are afforded our AFL heroes in this era of the game is sometimes, quite obviously, clearly at odds with their maturity and coping mechanisms. AFL players, particularly well-known ones, want for nothing. They are A-list in this country - and that counts for a great deal (in more ways than one) for these young men. Some of these players are mere boys and are yet to have even moved out of home or know how to use a washing machine. Like the worst excesses of Hollywood and every other celebrity-obsessed sub-culture, they are idolised - bestowed with the magical associations of hero-worship. And in a country as profoundly bereft of heros and heroines as this one, that is a position of great power and influence.
Sadly, just as he is not the first, Ben Cousins will not be the last hero to fall. The message here must be that the clubs, who in many ways arrest the personal development of these young men when they first join their sacred ranks, must elevate the development of a troubled player's personal qualities to the same level of importance as how well they perform on match day. If Ben Cousins has been allowed to consistently get away with as much as he appears to have done off the field simply because he has been such a star performer (and an unquestionable financial drawcard) for the club, then they have betrayed him and all those like him.
While we celebrate our AFL players' athleticism, physical prowess, physiques and - let's face it - their all-purpose desirability, it is time for the AFL to insist on the return of the good old-fashioned qualities that the code appears to be increasingly incapable of maintaining: honour, pride, discipline and a sense of privilege - what it used to mean to be an AFL player. Because if they don't, things can only get a great deal worse.