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Thursday, December 11, 2008

AFL Backs Down on Cousins

It sure has been quiet in the world of AFL misbehaviour. Sadly, that might end with news that the AFL has backed down on its year-long sanction of Ben Cousins.

We're presently in the grip of a will-he or won't-he media frenzy, with reports that Brisbane, St Kilda and now Richmond might take the risky old player. Adding fuel were reports that the player found the onerous drug-testing conditions too strict.

Meanwhile, the AFL players' union (under Brendon Gale) keeps banging on about how unnecessary all those extra drug tests are. It wouldn't have anything to do with the move essentially conceding that the present regime is inadequate for the job or detecting and deterring drug use, would it? Especially the dreaded long-term "hair test" - though easily bypassed by a shorn 'do, as worn by Cousins. Naturally, the AFLPA would like to renegotiate the players' terms to compensate them for any forced absence of drugs. Mr Gale, feel free to use the online AFL Drug Calculator to work help work out just how much compensation is needed.

Of wider concern is that this climb-down will signal that infamous Malthouse Doctrine is back in full swing. For those who don't know, this is the idea that an elite group of players at each club is so indispensable that they can never be sanction, banned or dropped and, as such, can do what they like. The idea was eloquently articulated by Collingwood's Mick Malthouse after the brutal and vicious car-park kicking involving Chris Tarrant and Ben Johnson:

"The fact that Chris and Ben are crucial to the on-field success of Collingwood has influenced my decision. Had they been youngsters on the fringe of selection, I might have thought a playing ban was in order.

"I suspect I'll be criticised for admitting this - what's new? - but you are kidding yourself if you think it would happen differently anywhere else. Different players get treated differently.
Perhaps if we were 15th, like last year, I would be thinking differently." (The Age, 4/8/2006)

Clearly, this is a dangerous idea and one that we at The Speccy believe lies at the heart of so much of the criminal and scandalous behaviour we see. The AFL finally decided to tackle it head on to protect the wider interests of the game in the face of the short-sighted selfishness of the clubs. Cousins' crackdown was the vehicle for that.

To test this idea, we've prepared an analysis of the effect of Ben Cousins being dropped by the AFL on general lawlessness and scandal by AFL players. The Speccy combed through our own copious records plus the ever-useful Wikipedia article (also edited by us). The results speak for themselves: since the AFL crackdown, general behaviour has improved remarkably.

What this analysis doesn't show is that the seriousness of criminality has dropped too: there's still a base-rate of traffic offences and the like, but the bashings are way down and rapes in particular have dropped right away. Of course, this could be a reporting bias, but it really does look like the AFL has cleaned up its image at a time when other codes are still under pressure.

The data points include current AFL players who involved themselves in off-field misbehaviour resulting in either a police investigation, criminal charges, a court appearance or a front-page media story. Data for 2004 is very patchy, since The Speccy only started in 2005. You can check out the incidents in question in this table and find out more using the search engine on the right (enter names into Background Check and click Scan).

The AFL and its fans should keep this in mind over the weekend as the final deliberations on Cousins' fate continue. Any backsliding now could jeopardise the progress seen in 2008, resulting in an unwelcome return to form in 2009.

*** UPDATE ***

A version of the above graph and analysis was published in Crikey for the edification of a wider audience.

Naturally, Ben Cousins was picked up Richmond and despite the above arguments he's now going to play for the Tigers. There were a couple of unfortunate Freudian slips, with Richmond Vice-Captain Nathan Foley remarking that "It's unfortunate what's happened in the past, looking before that he is such a great player and has had so many highs, his ability on game day is something so many people admire." AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou blurted "he sets an example for what can be achieved if you turn your mind to being positive". Hmmm. He then went on to describe Richmond's decision as "courageous", in the best traditions of Yes, Minister.

And, true to form, there was an incident within a few days of Ben Cousins' re-instatement, with Hawthorn's Brent Renouf arrested and expected to be charged over his drunken rampage:

Hawthorn ruckman Brent Renouf is expected to be charged with criminal damage offences after being arrested by police over the weekend.

The 20-year-old premiership player allegedly leapt onto the boot of a car parked on Burwood Rd, Hawthorn near the Geebung Polo Club, the Herald-Sun reports.

Police confirmed the man was apprehended by police on nearby Henry St at around 1am Sunday.

A spokeswoman told the Herald Sun the player would be charged on summons. (NineMSN, 22/12/2008)

Yep, that's one drunken bogan who knows he's beyond reproach since the AFL has once again green-lighted anti-social, arrogant buffoonery. With the shackles now off and the Malthouse Doctrine in full-swing, we're gearing up for a worrying 2009.

Citations: The Age, 4/8/2006

Word Count: 692

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Andrew Walker Has No Shame

In four years of covering the seamy underbelly of Aussie Rules misbehaviour, Carlton's Andrew Walker has set a new bar for shameless arrogance and contempt of wider society. His crime - driving whilst unlicensed - is relatively minor by AFL standards, but his flagrant disregard for the law is truly breathtaking.

On February 22nd, 2008, Andrew Walker had his licence suspended (presumably for traffic offences). He was given a paltry $500 fine (equivalent to one morning's "work") and, naturally, no conviction was recorded. A mere eight days later, on March 1st, he was picked up by police for driving, obviously now unlicensed. He complained he was left "confused" by the Magistrates Court (AFL Division) about whether or not he was allowed to drive. (We can be quite sure there's absolutely no chance that he would be confused about the sentence from the AFL tribunal, but then, that's a legal force that actually matters to Mr Walker.)

Why on earth would he think he could get away with being "confused"? We've heard that he does a very convincing "playing dumb" act, but surely it would be hard to mount a case that, for instance, he wasn't sure who the magistrate was referring to when he was standing in the dock at the time. "Oh right, you were talking about me." or perhaps "Oh I see ... I'm suspended from driving any car. Yep, got it now." Surely any lingering confusion would have been dispelled by his own lawyer?

But let's look at some recent history. His colleague, David Teague, rendered an elderly woman a paraplegic when a borrowed hotted-up hoon wagon spun out of control early one Sunday morning. Teague successfully persuaded a magistrate that it wasn't because he cornered too quickly; no, a design fault meant that the floor mat got wedged on the accelerator.

What about Collingwood's Brody Holland - also caught driving unlicensed and on the tram tracks on Swanston St, no less - who claimed that he believed his Western Australian licence was sufficient even some five years after he allowed it to expire. What an absolute crock.

And then there's Hawthorn's Mark Williams, pinged for driving while disqualified (after earlier speeding offences). His excuse? Didn't realise his licence had been suspended. Oh, and Corey McKernan? Driving while disqualified and using a mobile phone. (He lost his licence for drink driving too, the selfish bastard.)

So, not surprisingly, Andrew Walker tried to bullshit his way out of the charge. And why not? The historical odds are good. But Magistrate Jennifer Tregent suggested that this "beggared belief". In plain English, she wasn't buying that Walker didn't realise the February suspension a) applied to him b) immediately and c) for any car. His lawyer described him as "bemused" and conceded that there was a compulsory jail sentence for disregarding the earlier suspension.

And the fallout for this egregious display of lawless contempt?

Told that Walker was a "professional athlete", [Magistrate] Ms Tregent asked what type and was informed by [Walker's solicitor] Mr Kemp he was a footballer with Carlton.

Ms Tregent suspended a one-month jail term for 12 months, suspended Walker's licence for two months, fined him $500 without conviction, and told him she did not anticipate he would drive during the suspension period. (The Age, 19/8/2008)

And here's the kicker: Andrew Walker drove his car to court to answer charges of driving unlicensed. Setting a new bar for chutzpah, he then had to have a mate give him a lift home, leaving his car behind (apparently opting out of the free priority taxi service for AFL footballers). What the hell was he thinking? Well, we know the answer to that ...

There's a distinct pattern going on here: over-privileged footballers realise that road rules and licensing requirements are for other people. They willfully break the law. They lie or act dumb or just plain old try to bluff it out. The legal sanctions have no effect. The clubs leave them be while they're kicking goals. There's no serious negative public comment. And so things get worse.

Sure, driving unlicensed is a relatively minor crime. But it speaks volumes of the general contempt and feeling of being special that can have much more sinister consequences. Let's not forget that during Essendon's Andrew Lovett's trial he allegedly said he was a "special person" who "could probably get away with murder". Outlandish? Well, Victoria's most senior detective is on record expressing doubt about his detectives' abilities to fully investigate footballers during the Heath Culpitt missing rape evidence scandal. And in one of Daniel Kerr's assault trial earlier this year, a witness gave testimony that immediately after the vicious assault Kerr told the victim "I am too good for the Eagles. They wouldn't delist me." Given the frequency with which he calls upon their services, we assume his brazenness extends to police and courts too.

This attitude must be very disheartening for police trying to do the right thing and downright scary for victims and witnesses trying to seek redress. At The Speccy, we argue that this culture of impunity and being special and above the law starts with minor traffic offences and, unchecked, culminates in serious cases of assault and rape.

Citations: The Age, 19/8/2008

Word Count: 853

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Didak Misbehaviour a Shaw Thing

Just a few weeks after coming off his "special provisions" contract, troubled Magpie Alan Didak has been unmasked as the secret passenger yet again. No, not in a "hell-ride" involving a drug-dealing murderous Hell's Angel, but in Collingwood's growing Heath Shaw bingle scandal.

But let's back things up. Alan Didak has been a frequent subject on this blog, notably for his 2006 public blue with then-girlfriend, glamazon model Cassie Lane and his confrontation with a taxi driver that saw him charged. (Incidentally, this event caused Collingwood to win the betting pool in the Aussie Rules Misbehaviour Market.)

But what really gained Didak notoriety was his friendship with Hell's Angel Christopher Wayne Hudson. His resulting lift home from the Spearmint Rhino strip club - with shots fired out the window, including at police - and visit to the Hell's Angel's headquarters came to light a few days after Hudson later horribly beat a stripper (Autumn Daly-Holt), shot another one (Kara Douglas) and shot two men who came to their assistance (solicitor Brendan Keilar and Dutch backpacker Paul de Waard). Sadly, Mr Keilar passed away.

Didak attracted criticism for his friendship and association with Hudson, his reluctance to come forwards and his somewhat hazy recollection of events when questioned. That weekend Didak was booed by the crowd in what was possibly the Collingwood cheer squad's finest hour.

As a result of his repeated and accelerating poor judgement, he had special clauses put on his contract with Collingwood, ensuring that he stayed off the booze and kept to a curfew. This for a 25-year-old grown man with a six-figure income! Sadly, these juvenile measures seem to have been necessary. Just a couple of weeks ago, the clauses were lifted as part of Didak's new $800,000 contract. Now we have this.

(You can see why Carlton's Brendan Fevola - himself no stranger to a bingle scandal! - is resisting efforts to have similar "behavioural restrictions" attached to his contract. They actually work.)

Heath Shaw - a relative clean-skin - got pissed on Sunday at a suburban pub, Hawthorn's Geebung Polo Club. He then drove home (at 0.15 BAC or three times the legal limit). Remember, this is a man with a large income and his own free, priority taxi service. Predictably, he ploughed into two parked cars, causing damage and waking the neighbours.

While Didak was spotted at the scene, the pair denied he was in the car. Club president, Eddie McGuire, took that at face value and defended Alan Didak with the memorable line that he "will be accused of the Kennedy shooting next". Of course, the truth emerged within hours and with it the reality: these men had tried to lie their way out of a bad situation.

After humiliating the club and casting a pall over the credibility and competence of Eddie McGuire, they're gone. Alan Didak has been fined $5000 and Heath Shaw has been fined $10,000. Shaw's brother, Rhyce Shaw, has been fined $5000 and suspended for two matches for drinking late on Sunday. Most importantly, Didak and Heath Shaw have been suspended for the rest of the year. Here at The Speccy, we commend the club for taking a decent, sensible and forward-looking stance.

While criticised by some commentators as "a ridiculous overreaction", this indeed sends a powerful signal to players. No, not the bit about getting hammered and driving your car. Hey - many, many players have done that and escaped sanction. It wasn't even the lying about it bit - after all, Scott Thompson's incident also involved a few hours of the who-was-where-doing-what game before the truth came out. No, it was lying to the club and making Eddie looked like a fool that did them in. Headlines like "Magpie lies humiliate McGuire" (Macarthur Advertiser) are just not acceptable given McGuire's, um, tenuous and difficult position at Nine, as failed CEO and TV presenter-sans-show. He can't afford to look like a patsy at this crucial stage of his career.

But just in case we were in any doubt about what exactly the sins were, former club captain Nathan Buckley spelled it out:

Buckley told Radio 3AW this morning that Shaw and Didak's lies were "unforgivable".
"For those players to be out from a football perspective six days before a game, when they have had an eight-day break is just unacceptable and then to top it off by being dishonest to the people in an environment where you rely on honesty and you rely on trust is unforgivable,'' Buckley said. (The Age, 5,8/2008)

Drinking on a school night. Check. Telling lies. Check. Oh, and the drink-driving/jeopardising others' safety part? Well, unless they ran over another listed Collingwood player, I'm not getting a strong sense that Buckley has thought about that too much. Gotta admire his focus, if not his morals.

Another former club great (and uncle of Heath and Rhyce), Tony Shaw, put his oar in by pointing out the effects of a footy club's ingrained tribal rules and over-arching commercial imperative. He also has a sense of where the problems lie:

Tony Shaw earlier told Radio 3AW that by covering for Didak, his nephew had "picked the wrong person".

"I think Heath deserves everything he cops in all ways from the club but the one thing about it, the lying part, there's no doubt there's an unwritten law within footy clubs that you look after your mates and unless they do something that physically harms someone or something against the law ... maybe Heath did the right thing in one way in helping out a mate but he probably picked the wrong person to do it for,'' he said.


"I'd be pretty dirty if I was Heath.''

The club legend said the administration had not handled things properly.

"I the (club's) just trying to make an example and they haven't set the scene prior to this - Eddie (McGuire) will tell you I've rung him a number of times about different players doing different things off the field for nearly four to five years and I think that the protectionism that Eddie's trying to give the club to save their image in fact is detrimental to the very thing that you try to build and that's the culture," Tony Shaw said. (The Age, 5,8/2008)

It's certainly food for though and while it doesn't diminish the culpability of Heath Shaw and Alan Didak, it does go some way to explaining how this cultural problem can be tackled. Hint: Eddie McGuire (and his ilk), with their spin and cover-ups and master media manipulation, are part of the problem.

Let's not forget that it was just two years ago that we saw the terrible Chris Tarrant-Ben Johnson car park assault that left a young man in hospital with severe head injuries. Let's recall how Eddie responded to criticism that the two players would be allowed to represent the club the following weekend, rather than face suspension:

"We're playing for the finals and they owe us. They're not getting the night off, you don't get a day off when you're playing the top side in a big game. They owe their supporters and they owe their teammates and they'd better get a kick." (The Age, 3/8/06)

And let's also recall the so-called Malthouse Doctrine, whereby the really good players become beyond reproach:

"The fact that Chris and Ben are crucial to the on-field success of Collingwood has influenced my decision. Had they been youngsters on the fringe of selection, I might have thought a playing ban was in order.", [said Collingwood coach, Mick Malthouse]. (The Age, 4/8/2006)

Perhaps this is the kind of behaviour Tony Shaw had in mind when he made his comments? In any case, public sentiment has shifted a lot in two years and I doubt that even McGuire would try this "they owe us" line again.

So we've had two players fined and suspended for the rest of the year. The Collingwood Football Club has taken steps to ensure that these two players will behave better in future. More to the point, by taking on the pain of absenting two promising young players, they've signalled that the club is prepared to take a long-term investment view when it comes to player discipline. For all this, they are to be congratulated. It's just a shame that it took lies and deceit to trigger this response, rather than the selfish, criminal, stupid and dangerous act of drink-driving.

Citations: The Age, 5,8/2008; The Age, 3/8/06; The Age, 4/8/2006

Word Count: 1466

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