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 (AFL, or Aussie rules) and the National Rugby League (NRL). 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.
The biggest scandals 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). Cousins missed most of the AFL season after he sought rehabilitation for a reputed methamphetamines addiction.
Cousins had made a triumphant return in round 15, playing to a home crowd at Subiaco Oval, with a 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 threatened 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, with The Daily Telegraph’s October 17 editorial opining: "It is time we stopped lionising drug abusing sports 'stars’ such as Ben Cousins and Andrew Johns’’.
The Age sports commentator Greg Baum pontificated on October 18 about Cousins 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 Cousins 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. However, 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 serious 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 Cousins' 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.
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