The increasingly bad behaviour of sportsmen over the past few years has been a topic dissected, pored over and pulled apart by academics, newspaper columnists and all manner of social commentators. Some analysis has been thought-provoking, yet some has been laughably simplistic — as though these sportsmen are all pampered, indulged, overpaid bogans. As though there’s one reason why they have turned out the way they have, and one simple remedy to get them to change their ways.
A close look at the lives of two AFL champions — Wayne Carey and Ben Cousins, whose waywardness and antisocial behaviour off the field have almost eclipsed their deeds on it — shows just how lacking in intellectual rigour that analysis is.
For those two players could not have had more different childhoods, home lives and relationships with their fathers, yet they ended up in pretty much the same place as adults — in trouble with the law, with substance-abuse problems, tattered reputations and a perception among the public that they are arrogant, egotistical dickheads.
Just as there is more than one way to produce a champion sportsman, there are also plenty of ways to produce slightly dysfunctional, flawed, anti-social human beings.
Carey grew up in a terribly brutal household in Wagga Wagga, where his father was a violent drunk who ruled with an iron fist, and often erratic, discipline. Carey, along with his mum and two sisters, would often have to sleep in the playground of the nearby kindergarten to escape his dad’s rages.
His mother, sick of her husband’s beatings and brutality, left home when Carey was seven and went to live in a women’s refuge for battered wives in Adelaide. He did not see her again until he was 14, having spent the ensuing seven years living with his father. And that did nothing to help him develop a sense of right and wrong, or what constituted acceptable behaviour.
It was only when his father was in jail for the second time that Carey was actually introduced to football, his aunty in Wagga having taken him to the North Wagga Saints, which happened to be 50 metres from her front door.
Carey went to four primary schools in Wagga and, later, four high schools in Wagga and Adelaide. By any measure, his childhood wasn’t normal nor was it conducive to producing a reasonable, rational, even-tempered adult.
Cousins, by contrast, went to Wesley College, one of the Perth’s leading schools. He was always a gifted sportsman and seen as the golden boy from a very young age. At home, he was the apple of his parents’ eye.
On Friday nights at the Cousins household in winter, his parents would pull the blinds down in the bedrooms at 6pm — so that his brother and two sisters had to go to bed as early as he did — because Ben was playing footy the next day and needed his rest. Everything was done to promote and further Ben’s footy career.
It was a wholesome middle-class upbringing in which his family was close and he was surrounded by love. His excesses were overlooked; his successes fulsomely praised. He wanted for nothing. But some time in his teenage years, Cousins got involved in drugs for the first time, a scourge with which he battles to this very day — 15 years on.
Carey drank industrial quantities of beer during his career, and then turned to cocaine after his time at North Melbourne ended in disgrace. Cousins’ drug-taking grew worse through his late 20s when he reportedly developed a serious ice — methamphetamine — habit before he was sacked by his club, West Coast, and then banned by the AFL for 12 months.
So Carey grew up with nothing, and Cousins everything. Yet these two young men eventually found they had plenty in common apart from a special talent for kicking a pigskin around. They both ended up with their lives off the rails, victims of their own sporting success and their surreal celebrity life where they were indulged by their respective AFL clubs and the myriad parasite hangers-on they inevitably attracted.
That’s not making excuses for them; plenty of these buffoons deserve our condemnation. But it’s too easy and too simplistic to lump together these sportsmen under the one catch-all heading: Men Behaving Badly. They’ve all got their own stories to tell, their own baggage, hang-ups, skeletons and demons to deal with. And perhaps it’s worth bearing that in mind when next we line up to lay the boots into someone we don’t know.
Charles Happell is the ghost-writer of Carey’s autobiography, The Truth Hurts (PanMacmillan Australia, $34.99) to be released on Tuesday.