Just before last week’s blog was posted, the tragic news came through about the death of John McCarthy.
For the uninitiated, McCarthy, an AFL footballer for Port Adelaide and before that, Collingwood, became lost and disoriented on his end-of-season trip to Vegas. From a 9 metre casino roof, he attempted to jump onto a palm tree about one metre away so that he could climb down.
A fall ensued and the impact took his life about thirty minutes later.
I didn’t want to halt last week’s piece by jumping to conclusions about how this event occurred, or why he was apart from teammates, or in such a fragmented mental state a mere few hours after landing in the ‘city of sin’. They are still questions that need answering, but from more developed minds than I…
It has, however, had me thinking about the invincibility that so many sports stars feel.
For those who play a contact sport such as AFL, NFL and rugby, the courage they have to demonstrate on the field means that there is nothing to fear off it.
And this is where we start to encounter problems.
There have been two unsettling court cases in the last two year here in Australia, requiring witness testimony from AFL players. I won’t mention player names or clubs, because that’s not the focus here. Both scenarios unfolded during ‘big nights out’. Now, forget for a moment about the players’ total lack of compassion for the alleged victims, but I was staggered at the volume drinking that was talked about on the witness stand. 16 drinks, 20+ drinks…
These guys are so tightly wound during a week in the lead-up to a game or in the season as-a-whole, that when they get to the end and let their hair down, for far too many there’s little or no self-control.
What can possibly go well for you when you have that many drinks in your system??
From one extreme to the other
There was an article in the early 2000s about a phenomenal football team who had just won another premiership. Obviously at that time, we’re talking about the Brisbane Lions. The writer confessed that it was sad to see such a disciplined bunch of players unravel within the space of 24-48 hours into such a disheartening drunken mass.
Is this really what they’re aspiring to when sacrificing their bodies, their time with family, their long-term welfare in giving so much to the sport they love; an opportunity to get smashed for a few days??
A new era
It still kills me that the greatest basketball point guard of all time and one of my sporting heroes, Magic Johnson, threw his career and his life away in such irresponsible fashion. Yes since then, Magic has been a pioneer in increasing global awareness of AIDS, but it wasn’t like we were in the dark in the late 80s and early 90s…
I won’t go into sordid detail, but Magic lived the high life in his day. He had to know that the encounters he was consistently engaging in could lead to oblivion, but maybe he, like so many others before and after him, believed that nothing, in life as in on the court, could touch him.
There’s no doubt that the death of an AFL player overseas is going to bring the off-field behaviour and habits of footballers into a blaring spotlight. While this should be a positive step forward, more likely, though, is the outcome that that type of behaviour will become less international, less public, more private, more hidden.
Group overseas trips will be frowned upon, private gatherings preferred. Keep things under the carpet, protect the AFL brand and that of its competing clubs.
Yes there is work being done to educate players and fans about the treatment of women and the league is a global leader in its anti-racism stand. Thank you, Nicky Winmar and Michael Long. (And no, that wasn’t sarcasm.) Therefore the fan in me wants to point to the League’s leadership over competitors such as the NRL when it comes to player and fan education and expectations, but the realist in me can’t help but cynically acknowledge that the McCarthy incident is just the tip of a very deep, broad and jagged iceberg.
It was only 6 years ago that West Coast Eagles player Chad Fletcher almost died in the same city in a drug-related incident.
What have we learned?
Some wisdom from Mick Malthouse (of all people)
It was former Bulldogs, sorry Eagles, I mean Collingwood, no, Blues Coach Mick Malthouse who said that the players think they’re supermen. I’ve said this before, but in Australia, they are our celebrities. We treat them like royalty, overlook their personal deficiencies in deference to their talents and allow them to ‘enjoy the moment’ when the season is over so they can finally relax.
But clearly we have them wound so tight with pressures and expectations on their bodies, fitness, goal kicking, form, answers to the media and behaviour on and off the field, that the release of an overly inflated balloon results when their season finally comes to a close.
I hope that John McCarthy’s tragedy was not in vain. It’s not up to the league, nor pressure from the media or the broader community to bring about sustainable behavioural change.
It’s in the hands of the players.
I pray these supermen can man up.