It seems things have gone from bad to worse over at Carlton with news of another alcohol-fuelled altercation involving a repeat offender and a "leadership candidate". Heath Scotland and Lance Whitnall have managed to turn a night out in sleepy Ballarat into the news story of the week, with allegations of more footy abuse and violence coming forwards.
After several dozen stories like this in the past couple of years, we know the drill. Right now, the slow creaking sound of the wheels of justice turning is drowned out by the ka-ching of cash registers as the football club in question and the media make rival bids for the story. Channel Nine - newly freed from its prohibitively expensive AFL deals - has an unusually large bucket of cash to spend on footy scandals. Perhaps this change in the corporate landscape explains why Nine managed the scoop:
Relaxing at home with son Dylan, Matthew Keetch and his partner, Yvette, this morning relived their harrowing run in with Carlton footballer Heath Scotland about 5am on Sunday [the 11th of February, 2007].
The couple told National Nine News they approached Blues captaincy candidate Lance Whitnall outside the Bended Elbow bar in Ballarat and chatted to him. Then they say Scotland appeared from nowhere and picked a fight.
"I don't know if they'd been drinking or what, but he was just mad," Mr Keetch said.
"He was crazy - like a wild animal."
After striking Yvette, it's alleged Scotland turned on one of their friends after a barrage of abuse.
"He was calling me a lesbian and I turned around and said: 'I don't appreciate that. I'm not one. I have a son'," Yvette said.
"And that's when he punched me."
Both Scotland and Whitnall were questioned at the Ballarat police station yesterday. The investigation is continuing and there is no word yet on whether charges will be laid. (NineMSN, 12/2/2007)
This shows the dangers of AFL's footy super-heroes mingling with the riff-raff in country towns. Melbourne police are well-and-truly cowed and know the procedure: if footballers have allegations made against them, wait several months and only proceed reluctantly. (No doubt Ballarat isn't as exciting as Brisbane for a detectives' day trip.)
Still, despite the alarmingly fair and efficient Ballarat police, there's still plenty of room for more experienced coppers from Melbourne to come down to help them wiggle out of this one to ensure the footballers aren't inconvenienced. Whether it's young Andrew Krakouer or beautiful Brodie Holland, it's all about making sure they get to play footy.
Of course, Carlton slapped the obligatory token "fine" (ie around one match payment) on the group for staying out so late, ensuring that that junior players Shaun Grigg, Kade Simpson, Brad Fisher and Michael Jamison learn the importance of being seen to do something. (As an aside, are all the bad ones called Heath or Kade now?) Carlton coach Denis Pagan checked his balls at the door before declaring that Lance Whitnall was still in the running for the captaincy:
Pagan said from his point of view, being fined and undergoing the "humiliation" of facing the media were punishment enough for being out late.
Whitnall hopes the incident will not hurt his captaincy chances and Pagan signalled he was still in the running.
"The easiest thing in the world - and I'm sure we're going to be criticised for whichever decision we make - would be to cut Lance's head off or Heath's head off, or the other four boys involved," Pagan said.
"We want to make sure they all learn from it - perhaps sometimes the hardest thing to do is to give a second chance." (The West, 12/2/2007)
I don't think there's any prospect that anyone's humiliated here: you have to have a sense of shame to feel humiliation and clearly AFL players have none. That massive ego, the arrogance, the knowledge that everyone worships you and everything you touch turns to gold. No, there's no shame here. Like with Whitnall's response to why they were all out at 5am - unbelievably, none of the six was wearing a watch! Only if you were up against an internationally-competitive embarrassing drunken thug like Brendan Fevola would a statement like that be accepted as evidence of "leadership material". Still, you gotta feel sorry that poor old Pagan has to scrape muck like that out of the bottom of what is a very mucky barrel indeed.
It's nice that The Blues will grant Whitnall a second chance - as hard as that must be. What's Heath Scotland up to now? Second, third? Or does he get a season ticket? Don't worry, Denis, I'm sure handing out "second chances" gets easier with time. Just ask celebrity castrato Mick Malthouse. Hell, it was only a few months ago that Scotland was in Melbourne Magistrates Court (AFL Division) defending allegations of ... hitting a woman at a nightclub. For those who don't remember, Scotland's heartfelt desire to become a fireman ensured that he got off "Scot" free with the most half-arsed apology and minimal financial grief (less than a week's wages).
I'd like to send a big shout-out to Deputy Chief Magistrate Paul Smith who presided over Heath's last court appearance and delivered the kind of footballer justice Melburnians have long come to expect. No doubt it must be a tricky business delivering justice to huge, rich, young men who get drunk and hit women. With only my simple sense of right and wrong, I wouldn't even know where to start. I certainly wouldn't understand the complexities involved in judgements about the likelihood of re-offending etc. I do wonder though - are magistrates ever given feedback in the form of how certain cases panned out? Speaking very generally, I reckon it would help them refine their judgements about predicting future behaviour if someone actually sidled up and said "You know that bloke you let off with a warning? Well, he's done it again six months later ...". Nevermind, judges hate performance benchmarks. Back to the issue at hand.
We'll wait to see if those naive country coppers slip up and accidentally gather evidence and lay charges (whoops!). We'll see if the appointment of a newly-minted billionaire president (Rich Pratt) doesn't loosen Carlton's purse strings when it comes to sorting these things outside of court. And we'll wait to see if any potential future magistrate takes into account the promises and character evidence from Heath Scotland's last court appearance for a matter like this. As Denis Pagan says "We want to make sure they all learn from it". Let's hope this applies to the criminal justice system as well as the AFL.
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