Cousins story proves AFL is more than a game


The story of Ben Cousins has stirred keen interest as the life journey of a young man from glory to disgrace and now, we might hope, from addiction to freedom. It has also stirred discussion of the justice of his treatment by his club and by the Australian Football League.

Now he is likely to be charged with bringing the game into disrepute. When living in an English city which was locked down when some opposing soccer teams played there, I was puzzled that this charge should be brought against players. Players, commentators, managers and supporters all appeared to have brought the ordinary condition of the game to such a level of disrepute that actions like pushing referees or swearing at the crowd, could hardly add to it.

But if we assume that the idea of bringing the game into disrepute is more than pure bombast, it does have interesting implications. It assumes that a broader group of people than players and clubs have an interest in football, that both players and club officials are accountable to this broader group, and that their responsibilities include preserving the good reputation of the game.

These assumptions immediately raise questions. Who precisely are the people that have this strong interest in football? And how can their interest legitimately demand such a strong responsibility on the part of players and clubs that they can be penalised heavily if they fail to exercise it?

The cynical answer is that the people who have an interest in football are only those who have a financial stake. To bring the game into disrepute would then be a euphemism for threatening the financial interests of the sponsors and the media who involve themselves in football.

But a more generous reading gives an importance to public opinion. The people to whom footballers and clubs have a responsibility are the public in general. They include variously all the people who barrack for clubs, who hero-worship players, who are mildly interested in the game, or who make judgments on it. The good opinion of the public is judged to be important for football. Why is this so?

People identify with the story that they tell about the game. For club supporters, the story of football is the story of a good band of brothers overcoming great obstacles and doing great deeds, or finding new ways of accepting disappointment in their quest for success. The world of the football story is one of honorable warriors and heroes. It is essentially a moral world in which virtue is respected and vice is deprecated. People of integrity have a significance beyond their numbers — they are taken to typify and ennoble the game as a whole.

The implications of this story for players are not that they should be role models. For the story to be maintained it is important only that it not be contradicted by the public life of people in football. People do not expect that footballers will be role models, only that they will not be role destroyers.

If this is true, though, it only sharpens the final question — why should footballers and clubs accept responsibility for maintaining this story? And is it reasonable to discipline them if they fail to do so?

The argument that this is reasonable rests on the conviction that within society stories are important in making connections between people, and that connection through shared stories is vital for the health of any society. Association, even through something as apparently trivial as football, has a large importance in society and its implicit stories are very important in shaping a shared moral view. So individuals who are privileged to play football can be held accountable for living in a way that contradicts the story. This accountability has traditionally been demanded of people in professions such as judges and clergy. They represent stories of connection through law and religion.

The charge of bringing a game into disrepute makes large claims for the social significance of football that run against the strong cultural emphasis on the individual. The erosion of deeper forms of connection may have led to more trivial associations being given higher significance.

If the story of football is important it should also command the ways in which it is vindicated. The football story is full of loveable rogues, of exiles welcomed back, of the hopeless overnight becoming hopeful. If Ben Cousins is found guilty of bringing the game into disrepute, the sentence should explicitly include space for another surprising chapter in his footballing life.

Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.





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Existing comments

I am surprised the press and journalists in general are not held more accountable in this issue in particular. They seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and newspaper columns on this story. I seek in vain to discover how many women and children are made homeless TODAY with no obvious financial and male support due to conditions in areas such as Afghanistan, Darfur, Iraq and other so-called "theatres" of war. Perhaps the press find these tales and TRUE stories too horrific to contemplate and decide the reading public should not know about them; instead we are subjected to endless comment on Ben Cousins and his ilk and all they do is kick a football.
Rosemary Keenan | 08 November 2007

Great article..
Ryan | 12 April 2013


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