With the recent press about the Ablett clan (both on the field and off it), it's timely to go to the source and remember Gary Ablett - the man they call God - as arguably the best player to ever pick up a footy and a person whose very public flaws epitomises the dangers of confusing talent with virtue. The lesson for AFL players and fans is that a "good player" will face temptations and situations that can quickly render them a "bad person".
Growing up in regional Victoria in the 70s, he dropped out of school at 15 and worked as a brickie's labourer. During this period, he successfully avoided jail despite various charges for assault, drug possession and related matters. After an aborted attempt at cracking the big leagues with Hawthorn in 1982, he was picked up by Geelong in 1984, willing to overlook his earlier criminal past and on-field disappointment. This is when his football career took off, and, for over a decade, was perhaps the stand-out player of his time, winning numerous awards. In 1986 he found religion as a born-again Christian. He also retired briefly in 1991 before coming back mid-season and continuing to play until 1997 (35 years old).
Many argue that it was his post-football career when the wheels fell off. Convictions for drugs and other matters were recorded against Gary Ablett before and after his 15 year footy career. None were recorded (of which I'm aware) while he was a carefully managed prize asset of the Geelong Football Club. One explanation is that he stayed away from trouble (including drugs) throughout his 20s. That's not the only possibility.
What is clear is that after football, Gary Ablett was prone to going on drug-fuelled benders lasting several days. During one such spree in 2000, he was holed up in the Park Hyatt with a young woman, Alisha Horan. She was a star-struck 20-year old, "an infatuated fan", who had been accompanying Gary for a couple of days after inquiring about cleaning his house for him. Tragically, she died from a drug overdose after Gary Ablett gave her some of his heroin.
Gary "God" Ablett, left, and Alisha Horan (dec).
Ablett had himself been given a large number of ecstasy tablets - he claims 12 - for free by a well-wisher. Another sports fan (named Butch) gave him a small amount of smack gratis at the notorious Mansion nightclub. (About the most dodgy den I've ever visited. Maybe it was cleaned up since 1997 when I was there - but I doubt it.) The night ended up with Alisha and Gary back at his hotel after they'd consumed the tablets and been drinking heavily. Gary cut up a few lines of heroin, tried to hide it from her, but let her have some when she found him out, telling her it was cocaine.
Up until this point, it may seem like Gary Ablett is living a playboy's dream: strangers giving you free drugs, enough cash to afford swanky hotel rooms and partying with beautiful 20 year old women. But the same lack of character that allows a celebrity sportsman to enjoy themselves in this manner results in fallout for those around them - and then themselves:
In March 2001, coroner Noreen Toohey found that Ms Horan died from a combination of heroin, ecstasy and amphetamines. Ms Toohey said that Ms Horan had "become enmeshed in a culture of alcoholism and drug taking with her football hero" and had been "partying out of her league".(The Age, 28/2/2003)
Ablett was criticised for introducing a young person like Alisha to his seedy world, giving her drugs (including heroin), delays in getting her medical assistance and "protect[ing] his arse" (in the words of Alisha's father) by (lawfully) refusing to testify at the Coroner's inquest. For his involvement in this death, he ended up with a $1500 fine for possession of drugs.
While Ablett has always been regarded by the public as "troubled", these details of just how far he'd gone shocked many. Most of us assumed that this would signal the death-knell for his footy club's ambitions for him to enter the Hall of Fame. In fact, he asked Geelong to stop nominating him, before a surprise announcement of his inclusion just a few months ago.
It's almost impossible to understand how he meets the official criteria of "integrity" and "character". Some, like AFL stalwart Leigh Matthews, believe they should just be dismissed:
"The criteria sounds good when you talk about integrity and character, but you can be the best bloke in the world and if you don't play footy really well, you're not going into the hall of fame - and I don't think you can reverse it."
(The Age, 7/6/2005)
This fuzzy thinking and moral backsliding is typical of an AFL insider: no one is suggesting that "good blokes" are let in solely on the basis of being good. The idea is that you have to be a great football player and NOT be a criminal. Is that so hard to comprehend? But, in the current environment where many are agitating that "fairest" be left out of "best and fairest", it's symptomatic of a footy culture out of control, where winning is all that matters and you do what you can get away with.
AFL Chairman Ron Evans though is trying to have a foot in both camps:
Evans was adamant last night that the AFL Commission would not change its criteria. "I think the 'integrity' and 'character' criteria should stay," he said. "We've applied that to the other inductees and other legends and I think the results speak for themselves." (ibid)
Right, so we should keep the criteria, but water them down to the point that they're meaningless. After all, what kind of "integrity and character" criteria apply when Gary Ablett is let in? It begs the question: who would the criteria exclude?
Gary Ablett was not able to attend the awards night, instead continuing to fight his demons in various rehab clinics around the country. The Hall of Fame induction suggests that footy-loving public of this country has forgotten the naive young women, sacrificed on the altar of fame. But not entirely. After the announcement, some activists had spray-painted a message in metre long letters on the path next to the MCG:
While such blasphemy was scrubbed away within a couple of days, it shows that a few people are still not prepared to accept that such a flawed man should be venerated so widely and so fiercely. No doubt, Gary Ablett would count himself among their number.
*** Update ***
Gary Ablett continues to disgrace himself and his club. Not content with being named the Cats best ever player, he tried to sell a DVD of his acceptance speech to Channel Nine for $20,000. He was in hospital due to a mangled foot from a lawn mower. He pre-recorded his acceptance speech and contacted Channel Nine about a sale. They declined. Gary later had this to say about his tawdry deal:
"I have no idea what DVDs like that are worth," said Ablett, who has fallen on hard times and is understood to be looking for work.
"I can honestly say my conscience is clear before God – it's quite an innocent thing what I've done ... but unfortunately the media have put me under the microscope once again and tried to find anything negative in this story that they did exploit and magnify in an aim to discredit my reputation and attack my character once again," he said.(FoxSports, 12/6/2006)
Yeah, Gary, it's always someone else, isn't it? It's never you.
Gary Ablett has made his first public media remarks about his role in the death of Alisha Horan:
"Apart from the pain and grief of the tragedy, I felt a deep sense of shame and failure over my own behaviour, and I still feel deep regret and remorse. I just wish I had a time machine," he said. (Herald-Sun, 29/11/2007)
He goes on like this for a few more paragraphs, and has a dig at the "tall poppy syndrome" that sees him criticised for, well, his atrocious behaviour.
The timing of his mea culpa is curious. Until you realise he has a book coming out next month. And, no, Alisha Horan isn't mentioned in it. Surprising, no? But it's not that it's a sordid episode that shows him up as a bad and weak person. No, it's because "I don't want to be in any way profiting from that tragedy".
So why is he mentioning her as part of his pre-launch publicity strategy?
- AFL Hall of Fame
- Wikipedia Article on Gary Ablett
- Police Interview with Gary Ablett (Transcript, The Age, 28/2/2003)
- Revealed: What Took Place in the Hotel Room (The Age, 1/3/2003)
- Ablett Enters Hall of Fame (The Age, 2/6/2005)
- Ablett - Fame and Pain (The Age)
Word Count: 1365