Demonising Ben Cousins


Ben CousinsLast month the media provided extensive details of the arrest and subsequent charging of the West Coast Eagles star Ben Cousins over the alleged possession of illegal drugs. Following a continuing stream of criticism from 'informed' commentators, the West Coast Eagles terminated his contract.

On the surface, it seemed like the right move. It wasn't the first time Cousins had been in trouble over drug-related allegations. Although he has never returned a positive test under the AFL's testing regime, at the beginning of the 2007 season he was suspended following admissions of using social drugs, and went to America for rehabilitation before returning to play out the 2007 season.

The October incident seemed to indicate Cousins was not reformed after all. But it wasn't that clear-cut.

The day after Cousins' sacking, the police announced they were dropping the charge that he had prohibited drugs in his possession. They acknowledged that some or most were designed to help him overcome depression and problems related to his previous social drug problems.

Talk about egg on your face — the Eagles, instead of punishing a villain, may have made a martyr of their troubled former star.

Virtually all sporting competitions have adopted codes against the use of drugs. They were originally adopted to prevent the use of performance enhancing drugs, such as steroids. The rationale for such bans is their negative health effects on all athletes, especially those at the bottom end of the food chain without access to sound 'medical' advice, and their usage involves a form of cheating.

But the technology developed for testing for performance enhancing drugs lags behind the ability of 'chemists' to find new drugs. On the other hand, when it comes to testing for social drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine — drugs that are not seen as performance enhancing — the technology is more efficient.

Some athletes, like other sections of the community, use social drugs. A drug policy designed to stop the use of performance enhancing drugs has been taken over by the baying of politicians and commentators against players using social drugs.

The Australian Football League (AFL) and Australian Football League Players Association (AFLPA) have negotiated a code to reduce the use of both types of drugs. It views drug taking as a medical problem, protects the identity of players who test positive for drug use and provides help and counselling for their rehabilitation.

Politicians and media commentators, on the other hand, advocate a name and shame approach with cuts in players' salaries and termination of their employment contracts. In the case of Ben Cousins, the media claimed his arrest and subsequent charging was a clear demonstration of him breaching undertakings following the resumption of his career. The West Coast Eagles were urged to sack him, and they duly did so.

The saddest thing of this sorry affair is how the West Coast Eagles turned their back on one of their own. Cousins had served the club with distinction on the sporting field. He won the Brownlow Medal in 2005, a premiership in 2006 and has been a regular member of All-Australian teams. Now he had been presumed by all to be guilty before he had a chance to defend himself.

On 11 September 2007, 20 medical and drug experts published an open letter where they praised the AFL and AFLPA's approach to drug testing. They said 'the prime objective of any 'drugs in sport' policy must be the health and welfare of the player concerned. Where this conflicts with another objective of the club concerned, the AFL or the government, the player's welfare must be paramount.'

This has not occurred in this case. Cousins has been hung out to dry. He could conceivably contest his dismissal under the grievance procedure of the AFL-AFLPA collective bargaining agreement. His lawyers have already indicated that they will launch proceedings against wrongful arrest by the police, and against the Eagles and the AFL for his dismissal, and for terminating his career.

The West Coast Eagles were unable to resist the call for his crucifixion. They did not afford him the chance to defend himself. Moreover, they abdicated their common law obligation of care to an employee— an employee who was in rehabilitation seeking to overcome problems with drugs. This demonising of Ben Cousins constitutes one of the blackest days in the annals of Australian sport.


Braham DabscheckBraham Dabscheck taught industrial relations at the University of NewSouth Wales for 33 years. He has acted as a consultant or advisory board member to various player and sports associations in Australia, and has written extensively on the economic and legal aspects of sports.



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Existing comments

How can you say that the West Coast Eagles turned their back on one of their own? Where have you been the last 2 years? The Eagles have given him support and assistance for a very long time, they have even copped a media brawling for it. My belief is they sacked Cousins because he clearly still has a long road to go down to recover from his illness, being in the public eye as an Eagle is not helping him, the media are prowling just waiting for him to slip up, just like they did, the media too had hung him up before the cops dropped the charges. He's better off getting his health in order without being a footballer, then maybe the media vultures will leave him alone.
Shane | 01 November 2007

I wonder if Braham has been following this story over the last five or so years in which it has been taking shape, and how well he understands the culture of Perth's party scene? Is it possible that, as has been documented elsewhere, sports stars can be used and their weaknesses exploited by others with no interest in their sporting achievements other than how it it might help them in their own pursuits? I wonder, too, if it is no longer a reasonable expectation that an individual in our society is both expected and able to take responsibility for their own actions, including the rejection of all well-meaning and well-intended advice by his colleagues, coaches, professional support staff and employers in his (very well-renumerated) work place over this period? I wonder if Braham has allowed for the possibility of deceitful behaviour on Ben's part, or if Braham is assuming a level of purity of heart that matches Ben's undoubted physical prowess and good looks?
Alan Wedd | 01 November 2007

I am not sure that I agree with your statement about WCE turning its back on Ben Cousins. It seemed from my distant Melbourne based perspective that it was very tolerant and supportive through late 2006 and up to the end of the 2007 season. However, I agree that they acted in haste and perhaps unlawfully in terminating him after his recent arrest. This looks very wrong in hindsight, but I suspect the club was looking for any reason to remove him on the basis that he was a 'too high maintenance employee' distracting the club from its principal aims. More generally, I find the commentary about Ben Cousins and other sporting people who allegedly use performance enhancing and other drugs as highly emotive and judgemental and with litle regard for obligations that arise from an employment contract. Typically, with respect to individuals, it is only after poor performance that a person's ongoing employment is called into question and up to pre-work choices times those individuals had a right of redress, based around principles of natural justice. Lack of performance is hardly what WCE or the AFL could criticise Cousins for. However, in some areas of employment, damaging the employer's reputation may lead to termination. In Cousins' case, bringing the game into disrepute appears to be the complaint. If so, due process would require the WCE and AFL to provide him with a chance to reply to the charge. This clearly has been denied.
Peter O'Donoghue | 01 November 2007

As a resident of WA I am heartily sick and tired of hearing about Ben Cousins who has behaved very unprofessionally to say the least. He has had a great deal of help and support for his "addiction" whereas other young people who find themselves addicted or breaking the law or societal rules are given no assistance at all. If we as a society are to help Ben Cousins why oh why cannot we not afford the same help to all the other young psople who are in the same position. OR does Eureka Street, like many other journals and journalists, act in partisan ways?
A little challenge - if it were an ugly, fat, unknown woman of doubtful ehtnic origin would the resoponse be the same? I dont think so. Thanks for reading my response.
Rosemary Keenan | 01 November 2007

Thank you for this balanced view. The West Australian football public was willing to excuse Ben over the past few years because he produced some of the best football around. Now, however, this compassion is sadly lacking - on the part of the AFL, the Eagles and the public, and he may even have been targeted by police unfairly. He is a troubled young man who deserves our understanding for his personal response to adulation at a very young age which has produced the present situation which we now can't forgive. Thanks for putting this all in perspective. I only wish someone would make this comment available to his family (and through them to Ben himself).
Anne | 02 November 2007

Spot on Braham. I am constantly amazed by the public and media's satisfaction in watching others' lives and credibility destroyed. Ben is probably up against too great a force to clear his name, guilty (of what or exactly?) or innocent.
Matt | 05 November 2007

It is refreshing to read an article based on passing a level hand over the situation. It is enlightening to hear someone who is willing to construct a detailed recount of the events without using flexible thinking to portray negative light on Cousins. This article is highly substantiated in outlining the need for further involvement in the rehab process by both the Club and the AFL. I commend you on your ability to be neither biased nor opinionated in this article.
It is good to hear someone from the media who is not breathing down Cousins' neck to find some sort of publicity to reconstruct and turn him into some sort of a drug cheat...
Ben Cousins - Cheated by or Cheating with Drugs
Rodriguez Jones | 11 November 2007

The media has blood on its hands. If you have a problem with depression and drug use, how would you react after seeing yourself publicly humiliated in the media? You would go out and use drugs: the only thing you know will make the pain go away. How is he ever going to recover unless the media leave him alone? Drug addiction is a disease, yet if he had any another disease, e.g. cancer, it would be a totally different story.
Kat | 28 November 2007

i love ben cousins. he uses cocaine :)
Laura rose | 11 September 2008

ben's awesome
jesse | 25 October 2008

leave ben alone hes not the only person to do drugs an everyone is on his bac which could push him bac to the drugs leave him alone an giv him ago i think he will make a brillant dad goodluck to you an your girlfriend hope all goes well the best thing in your life will b your child they r amazing takecare benny
sam | 29 May 2011


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