Fear and loathing and Las Vegas football trips
It now appears Port Adelaide player John McCarthy was trying to leap into a palm tree from a roof of a Vegas casino building when he plummeted to his death.
That means we can almost certainly attribute this tragedy to skylarking or hi-jinx or tomfoolery or one of those other comical terms which you’ll find in the file marked “boys will be boys”.
You’re more or less obliged to use the adjective “tragic” in these types of cases, as though it’s disrespectful to use the word “death” on its own. That said, John McCarthy’s death was tragic, firstly because it was needless, and secondly, because he was young, intelligent, talented and by all accounts a good guy.
It’s hard to be angry about boys being boys, especially when they’re injuring no one but themselves. That said, if one side of this saga deserves the magnifying glass treatment, it’s the culture of end-of-season football celebrations.
The Age’s chief football writer Caroline Wilson mentioned this issue in passing in her column yesterday when she wrote:
“Too many young men die in tragic accidents while holidaying overseas. Too many AFL footballers find themselves in dangerous situations during end-of-season trips.”
The rest of her story was about the case itself, and she said no more on the issue of end-of-season trips. So let’s say a bit more here. Let’s talk about the culture of those trips and other season-ending celebrations like Mad Monday.
Players hit it pretty hard at this time of year, and it’s pretty obvious that they end up in places like Vegas because Vegas is all about booze and gambling, two vices they are largely denied during the ever-lengthening football season.
Footballers in Vegas can indulge free of the gaze of the finger-waving media and fans, and do the sort of stuff most 20-somethings get up to without having to answer to anyone.
The football season gets longer each year. Players are back at training by early November. It’s easy to characterise footballers as buffoons who do little more than play Playstation in their ample spare time, but the fact is, they train hard, and are public property 24/7.
All of that becomes wearing. Even though footballers don’t dig ditches or deal with bitchy office politics for a living like those of us with real jobs, the routine and the public scrutiny grinds them down.
Their lives are so regimented and micro-monitored in these days of football ultra-professionalism, yet they are denied the chance to let off steam like the rest of us. Have a drink and a million phone cameras snap into action. Have more than a few drinks and a thousand TV and news cameras do likewise.
To use an Adelaide example, last year Adelaide Crows player Taylor Walker (he of the mullet who was among his team’s best against the Swans last weekend) was spotted at a local footy game drinking a beer. A beer! The horror! That sparked all kinds of outrage, with claims he was either a bad role model, or that as an elite athlete he should not have been drinking alcohol during the season at all.
Many players, especially those in their early 20s, just aren’t emotionally ready for that kind of scrutiny. So when the all-too-brief off season comes around, they’re off to Vegas. And then, like teenagers denied access to Dad’s liquor cabinet, their first instinct when let off the leash is to binge.
We don’t know enough about the John McCarthy case for now to say whether he over-indulged.
But we know more than enough about the litany of incidents on end-of-season football trips involving numerous clubs down the years to mount a pretty good case for a slightly longer leash on AFL players during the season proper. Let young men be young men during the footy season.
Who knows? They may then even be tempted to go overseas with their partners rather than with the same sweaty blokes they’ve been sharing showers and hotel rooms for the past 10 months.
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