A footy club is the worst possible place for Cousins
Our national enthusiasm for deifying and excusing flawed sports stars was demonstrated again this week with Ben Cousins being afforded hero status for manfully accepting a one-week ban over his role in a fracas with a group of Richmond teammates at a Sydney hotel last weekend.
The discussion surrounding the incident – in which Cousins’ role was very limited and, up to a point, defensible – reveals a major problem with the way this troubled footballing champion’s battle with drugs and alcohol is being addressed.
It is this – the people who are ostensibly supporting Cousins still seem more worried about keeping him on the park, than keeping him away from the very environment which could drag him back into the world of drug abuse.
The saddest feature of Cousins fall from grace while playing for West Coast was the extent to which his behaviour had been ignored, or possibly even enabled, by those around him.
The club, the board, other players…anyone involvement with the West Coast Eagles would have had some degree of awareness that Cousins’ life was spiralling out of control. His conduct was so aberrant that it’s been speculated that, in the moments after the siren sounded in the 2006 grand final and the trophy was handed over, Cousins’ high-speed hand-pumping gesture in the middle of the MCG may have suggested that he was already under the influence of an illicit substance.
Getting away from Perth and West Coast was the best thing that could have happened to Cousins. But it now looks like he’s a very real risk of repeating the mistakes he made back in the West.
He is clearly vulnerable to relapse, as is any addict. He has admitted as much himself. But he’s also made some other admissions, the most disturbing of which was in his amazing interview with GQ Magazine last September, where he made the jaw-dropping admission that he still likes a drink.
In fact, the general tone of Cousins’ interview with Fred Pawle was that he still gets a bit of a secret kick out of enjoying bad boy status.
He joked at the start of the interview with stylists that they had to be careful dressing him.
“Don’t put me in an Elwood shirt, every time I wear one of them I get arrested,” he said in reference to his famous bust-up with the cops on a Perth street where he had his T-shirt tied around his waist and his now famous “Such is Life” tattoo adorning his sixpack.
It was a funny and self-deprecating line, but it was his subsequent playful remarks about still enjoying a beer which should have sounded alarm bells.
But this was the key passage from the GQ interview:
Pawle: Do you still drink?
Pawle: Does that flick any switches in your head?
Cousins: I have to be careful with that sort of stuff.
Pawle: It always starts with drinking, doesn’t it?
Cousins: It can do, but I’m on a pretty strict regime. I can’t afford to slip up, and enjoying the occasional drink is something I look forward to. It’s all in moderation.”
Pawle: You do nothing in excess these days?
Cousins: My life is in excess. I do everything in excess. I’m an extremist of the highest order. They’re the very qualities that have made me very good at what I do, football-wise. Take them away from me, you take away the qualities that make me very good at playing football. It’s just about harnessing them in other areas so I can still get the best out of myself without losing it.
Pawle: Those demons won’t go away, eh?
Cousins: I’m not naive enough to think that I can just wash my hands of where I’ve come from and it’s all in the past. The harsh reality of it is that it’s a struggle.
The obvious tension in this extraordinary exchange is how Cousins can acknowledge his status as an extremist of the highest order, while admitting that he still drinks alcohol and hangs around with drinkers.
This high-risk balancing act come unstuck in Sydney last weekend. Cousins was not drunk. But those around him were, so much so that they woke up a group of triathletes who were sleeping in a neighbouring room. Most unsettling of all was Cousin’s bizarre decision that the best way to get drunken teammate Daniel Connors to stop being an ass and turn in for the night was to belt him. His subsequent attempts to explain that little manouevre, albeit with the addition of a welcome apology, suggested he still has some behavioural issues to sort out.
Most of us can remember nights where a friend has had one too many and needs to be removed, but knocking them out not widely regarded as the ideal way to defuse a situation.
The Richmond Football Club has tried hard, and certainly done a much better job than West Coast ever did, in handling this incident. In the past Cousins’ pecadilloes often attracted that mindless, knee-jerk reaction that it was nothing but tall poppy syndrome and the media and public should leave the kid alone.
At least Richmond CEO Craig Cameron told Melbourne radio that Cousins had erred.
‘‘He could have acted at the origins of this incident, and he also could handled it a bit better when it escalated. So it was nothing to do with intoxication,’‘
The bigger issue for the club – and for Cousins – is to ask why he continues to place himself in a setting where drink is available and other people will get drunk. As things stand he is still playing an addict’s equivalent of Russian Roulette, where he will come under pressure from false friends to have “a quiet one”, a quiet one being an Australian euphemism for a dozen standard drinks.
It’s increasingly difficult to see what value the ageing Cousins brings to the hapless Tigers – or moreso, what the club can really offer him. The only role Richmond will play this year is to do Adelaide fans a favour by saving the Crows the embarrassment of snaring their first wooden spoon. Beyond that, Cousins is surrounded by guys who for the next 19 weeks will be looking to drown their sorrows.
Through his neglect by West Coast, and even under a better level of care at Richmond, Ben Cousins reminds me of those tent boxers whose conniving proprietors keep pushing their boys into one more bout. The footy culture might be the only culture he knows but it is the worst place for him to be. You have to wonder whether his status as a drawcard for crowds and members, a constant source of coverage for the AFL, is still regarded as somehow trumping his own welfare.
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