[Marxism] Drugs, sport, hypocrisy and hysteria

Rohan Pearce rohanp at greenleft.org.au
Sat Oct 20 17:57:57 MDT 2007

[Forwarded at the request of Stuart Munckton.]


[For many Marxmailers the name Ben Cousins wont mean much. But in
Australia, this is front page news across the country. And it raises
issues relevant to the sports industry and general drug hypocrisy in
most First World countries.]

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

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'', federal 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'

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

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 such a move 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 great 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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