In what must be some sort of AFL record, West Coast’s Daniel Kerr managed to cop an $1800 fine in a Perth court for assaulting a taxi driver, a day before facing another court on an unrelated assault charge arising from a party last month. Two court appearances in two days on separate assault charges. Not even Mike Tyson could manage that sort of strike rate.
But those familiar with AFL football, Western Australian-style, will not be overly surprised by the turn of events. Because footballers, especially West Coast ones, have long been a law unto themselves. The Eagles might be the reigning AFL premiers but in recent times they have also led the league in other key stats, such as court appearances and club fines. They are 1980s St Kilda, reincarnate.
As captain, Ben Cousins led the club not just on to the field but, après-game, into the city’s clubs and pubs. He lost his captaincy last year after abandoning his $140,000 Mercedes near a booze bus and, in an extraordinary impromptu biathlon, fled on foot, avoiding police by jumping into the Canning River, losing his shirt in the process, then turning up dishevelled and out of breath outside the BlueWater Grill restaurant, where staff had to rub their eyes at the waterlogged apparition before them. And didn’t the media have some fun with that story? Cousins was later charged with traffic offences and fined $900.
Not that it affected his ability to party, as evidenced by pictures taken of him in December, lying asleep under a bench outside Melbourne’s Southbank precinct in a semi-comatose state. He spent four hours in the lock-up and was arrested for being drunk in a public place.
Still, unfair to dwell just on Cousins. In recent years, Michael Gardiner, recently offloaded to St Kilda, has come under fire for associating with known Perth gangsters, then smashing his car into two parked cars while over the legal limit. Beau Waters was struck by a taxi in the early hours one morning and Quinten Lynch faced drink-driving charges for which he was fined and suspended. Not content with one public indiscretion, Waters outdid himself during last year’s premiership celebrations when he decided it would be a jolly good jape to eat teammate Adam Hunter’s goldfish at a party.
The enmity between club and media is long-standing. Coach John Worsfold has well and truly taken up the mantle of his one-time coach at the Eagles, Mick Malthouse, whose antipathy towards the media was legendary. Last March, as the media gathered at Subiaco Oval for a boundary-side press conference with Fremantle assistant coach Michael Broadbridge, Worsfold ran 70 metres across the ground to call the media “f-cking spastics”. The mild-mannered pharmacist was angry, apparently, that reporters had breached an Eagles directive that banned the media from standing inside the fence. Oh dear.
When, in 1991, West Coast’s brilliant Aborigine Chris Lewis bit the finger of Melbourne’s Todd Viney in a much-publicised incident during a game at the MCG, one young football writer made the mistake of reporting the incident for The West Australian which, of course, splashed the story all over its back page. The following day, at a club press conference, the same reporter was publicly assailed by then Eagles chairman, Terry O’Connor, for writing the story about Lewis – even though it had been given similar shock-horror treatment in Melbourne. The implication was clear: West Australian media stick up for West Australians; leave that sort of Eagles muckraking to the boys “over east”. It was an astonishing performance from the noted QC. But it said so much about West Coast players, their exalted place in football-mad Perth, and how the club expected them to be treated by the local media. With kid gloves.
Anyway, that little vignette set the tone for much of that reporter’s two years in WA. The siege mentality was overwhelming: it was WA versus the rest, especially the scourge from Victoria.
Yes, I can hear the Eagles’ defenders rallying already. But the players are under so much more scrutiny in Perth, they will say, they can’t have a quiet drink in a pub without it being reported to talkback radio, they can’t scratch themselves without it appearing in the West Australian. Well, all the more reason to behave like civilized human beings.
It may be a goldfish bowl for AFL players in Perth but at least they don’t run the risk of being swallowed like a live piece of sushi for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Charles Happell is a former Fairfax sports editor, and former chief football writer at The West Australian.