As you digested your Crikey early campaign edition today, and quite possibly this regular Crikey edition this afternoon as well, the AFL Commission will be deciding on the playing future of its troubled one-time poster-boy Ben Cousins.

It’s the latest instalment in a sorry saga that has brought credit on no-one involved – not his club West Coast, not the AFL, not the Western Australian police force and certainly not Cousins himself. In fact, it’s been a masterclass in how not to address the issue of illicit drug-taking in sport.

Like the most timid of ostriches, West Coast buried its head in the sand for fully a year, maybe more. As it took in that subterranean view, up in the land of the living, the club’s problems – and soon, its reputation – were spinning out of control. No-one at West Coast seemed prepared to take a stand over its miscreant players.

Soon, uncomfortable questions were being asked. In its determination to win a flag at all costs in 2006, did West Coast turn a blind eye – and deaf ear – to the drug-related problems being experienced by Cousins, Daniel Kerr, Chad Fletcher and others? If those guys were playing good footy, well isn’t that all that mattered?

But such expedient morality soon had an unfortunate spin-off. As the scale of West Coast’s “issues” became apparent, parents with draft-age sons began to ask: do we really want our boys going to a club with such worryingly lax discipline and equally slack principles?

In May, the AFL Commission had a rolled-gold opportunity to deliver not just a “a nice old lecture” to West Coast, as the club’s chief executive Trevor Nisbett predicted before their meeting, but a strong, definitive, uncompromising statement. What Commission chairman Mike Fitzpatrick came up with was a slap on the wrist with the limpest of limp lettuce leaves. Had it been forced then to shape up, West Coast would surely have extracted its sand-covered head from its hidey-hole and addressed the drug-taking problems at the club a lot earlier than it did.

AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou comes out of the episode with little credit either. He has a well-connected network at West Coast – being mates with Nisbett, Dalton Gooding and another long-time club powerbroker, Neale Hamilton – and they must have kept him informed of developments. Still nothing was done.

The WA police then stuffed up its arrest of Cousins this month, charging him with possessing the prescription drug Diazepam and refusing to undergo a driver assessment, then three days later announcing they made a mistake and would be withdrawing the drugs charge.

Then there’s the man himself, the strutting, tattooed, cowboy-booted No.9. Cousins has not yet shown one skerrick of contrition about the example he has set his legion of young fans, preferring to swagger about with a smirk on his face. That behaviour has helped polarize opinion. Instead of feeling sympathy with a young man who clearly has a major health problem, many are saying: why feel sorry for a spoilt, overindulged brat who has clearly never had anyone say no to him?

And so we come to the AFL Commision meeting today, when some of these issues will be aired and a decision made on whether Cousins will be allowed to play football again.

The AFL finds itself in a tricky position. And in such situations, it can usually be relied upon to take the easy option. So expect some sort of compromise: probably something along the lines of Cousins agreeing not to nominate for next month’s pre-season draft and to delay his comeback until 2009 in return for the AFL dropping its “bringing the game into disrepute” charge against him.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey