In December 2015, a feted and acclaimed AFL footballer ‘apparently’ threatened to stab a woman in the face with a chopstick as they were drinking/dining in the same Japanese restaurant in a trendy Melbourne suburb on a Saturday night. Drunk and disorderly as he sat at the bar, the woman ‘supposedly’ asked him to ‘calm down’ which allegedly only agitated him further. Then, she told a Channel 7 news bulletin, ‘he reacted extremely angrily, very very agitated, began swearing at me, standing over me physically, it was extremely intimidating….(he) held a chopstick above my head and threatened to stab me in the face with a chopstick.’ She apparently told the footballer she was going to inform his club about his behaviour, only angering him further. He then ‘reacted slamming his hand next to my head into the wall, which at that point was obviously extremely terrifying.’ The woman is a producer who works at Channel 7, too.
On the Monday, the contrite footballer called the woman and apologised for his behaviour. A club spokesman said he had also apologised to the restaurant’s managers and owners. The club was reportedly to ‘talk’ to the footballer later to consider what action it would take. It is not the first time the particular footballer has been ‘in trouble’. In 2012, he was suspended by the club after he and a teammate took sleeping tablets and slept in. At that time, he had already been banned twice by the club for misbehaving as well as on the receiving end of several other warnings for his behaviour off the field. With this latest incident, the AFL hand-balled the matter to the Victoria Police (who it claimed was the right authority to investigate what could be labelled ‘a potential criminal issue’), but just a week later, the police ‘dropped’ the investigation because, it was reported in The Age newspaper, the Channel 7 woman producer did not make a statement. Without this, the police could do nothing. The report did not make clear whether the woman wouldn’t make a statement for whatever reason/s, or did not want to, for whatever reason/s. The outcome of course is the same: the police could not question him let alone charge him. End of the crime? It is interesting that the woman told her employee, TV station Channel 7 news, what had originally happened, and I can only surmise or assume as to why. Was she really ‘terrified’ and by telling her account of events, wanted some kind of punishment for him; albeit suspension by his club from playing or even by the AFL itself? However, when the police became ‘involved’, she maintained her right to ‘silence’. Did she not want to ‘lay’ a criminal charge against him, and if not, why not? Did she believe it was a ‘mere drunken misdemeanour’ that did not warrant police involvement, and for what reasons? Interestingly, the AFL (formerly VFL) and Channel 7 have been closely ‘involved’ in broadcasting football for more than 50 years. The footballer is also one of the most lauded and celebrated for his skills and brilliance on the field; his off-field behaviour oft lamented by the club and the fans. The silence now about it all is ‘deafening’.
There are several questions I now ask, knowing all too well (like many questions I raise in my blogs), I will never know the answers. These include: was the woman ‘told/pressured’ by either a Channel 7 executive, at his/her own behest NOT to make a statement or was he/her maybe, acting on legal advice from the TV station because of the ‘serious and/or sensitive implications’ for the AFL and the game itself, let alone the footballer whose reputation could be destroyed? Indeed, he might have even ended up in jail, as ‘stabbing her in the face’ could have killed her depending where he stabbed her, of course. An attempted murder charge would just be too ‘costly’ to contemplate. Moreover, the footballer is a big drawcard on game days and that translates into money at the gate! Was Channel 7 ‘advised’ by the club and/or the AFL or both, that the woman ‘should NOT’ make a statement? Did she decide NOT to make a statement for ‘fear’ too, perhaps of losing her job and/or even promotional prospects? Or did she not think it was really ‘a serious’ enough threat’ that should result in a jail term or a criminal conviction against his name? Ultimately, the question is WHY didn’t she make a statement? Does she work in the sports department and how close is her superior to the head of sport? The TV rights deal between Channel 7 and the AFL is worth zillions! In his own right, so too is the footballer to the game!
This issue reminds me of a time when in the late 1950s, another young and brilliant footballer had been caught and charged by police with embezzlement; a white collar crime for which he was jailed. But he was behind bars in Pentridge for a short period, soon re-appearing on the football field without serving his sentence. I’m not sure how long his sentence was but when I attended my first few games of football when he was playing at that time, I kept hearing crowd opponents call him a ‘jailbird’. Only seven-years-old, I asked my mother what a ‘jailbird’ was? I do not recall what she replied or exactly when she replied, but I certainly remember that when I started attending games every Saturday afternoon at 11-years-old, the story I ‘knew’ was that his club (my parents and mine, too), had ‘somehow’ ‘paid’ for his release so he could develop into the great football ‘star’ he became. A decade after his release, he captained the club to three premierships and one as coach, too. Whether the club was ‘involved’ with the police and/or the government at the time I don’t know, and it wasn’t just my family who knew, many supporters just as aware of his background. The club was one of the wealthiest and most successful, politically well-connected with the then Liberal State Government as well as the Prime Minister of the country, also a Liberal, who was the No 1 ticket holder at that club. Make your own deductions! Of course, in those days, footballers mostly worked full-time off the field and players’ received comparative to today, a pittance of remuneration. Love of playing the game and premierships were paramount. These did translate into dollars for the club; so did on field success during the season but the ‘truth’ as many football supporters knew it in the 60s never made media headlines. What’s changed?
In 2002, the same club, then also with Liberal Party Federal President as club President, was ‘caught’ breaking the AFL salary cap by playing its footballers extra and ‘under the table’ payments. The AFL responded by fining the club $2 million (I think it was- it may have been just one million, I can’t quite recall) and also refusing it top draft picks for the next two years. Scandalous in football at the time, what is interesting to me, is that not one sports journalist has ever commented on, let alone reported in the way I am suggesting, about the club’s Finance Manager at the time. I picked his name up in a newspaper report as he was just mentioned alongside many other club officials as it was the year the famous club ‘won’ its first wooden spoon in its 138-year-old history. This Finance Manager of the club seemed to get ‘off scot free’ (certainly from any reported defamation?) as he then went on to become the head of Cricket Australia. The issues for me about him are: he must have known (unless he was just totally blind, stupid or dumb?) what the club was doing paying these players (he ‘supposedly’ looked after the account books?), acquiescing to the deals. Did he willingly turn a ‘blind’ eye to it all or was his ‘silence’ bought, too? Assuming he was party to the payment deals, why was he so complicit? His silence, and that of the media about his culpability in the shady deals, raises ethical issues about him as head of the cricket governing body in this country. No one seems to give a damn! He’s never been asked or even questioned about his role in the scandal, and is now in an even more prestigious position in Australian sport. Is it just another case of the old boy’s network and ‘winning’ the game is about ‘whatever it takes’.
This leads me on to the next saga in football sport in February 2013 which involved the supplements supposedly taken by another successful, wealthy and well-connected club (the current president is a former Labor minister in Federal Parliament and has a former Victorian Chief Police Commissioner on its board) that resulted in an AFL investigation ruling that the case against players taking banned substances could not be ‘convincingly’ proven. (The supplements’ saga was originally raised by the National Crime Commission and given full broadcast in the media). It is the now before the Court of Arbitration in Sport after the world anti-doping body, WADA, appealed against the AFL decision. The CAS decision is expected on 11 January in 2016, but at a recent international sports conference in Melbourne (and what better opportunity was there for some ‘sleuth’ in journalism to try and write something below the surface spin; of course, it didn’t happen), a chief executive of the CAS was reported as saying that ‘cheats’ should be jailed, but that currently ‘justice’ was not being achieved and laws needed to change. If the CAS is no more than a ‘toothless tiger’, maybe too many other sporting bodies know only too well they can operate as a ‘law unto themselves”. At the time the story broke about the club and its players, the club’s 2013 motto was ‘whatever it takes’! (The supplements were allegedly administered in 2012). Just after the story hit the headlines, including many front pages on Melbourne’s daily newspapers, SBS-TV broadcast a discussion program about ‘doping’ in sport, particularly football. A 40ish something male PhD graduate, then lecturing at the University of NSW in psychology and the Australian Defence Force Academy, who had recently completed his doctoral thesis on doping in sport, claimed that doping was more prevalent in sport worldwide than we knew. His comments were not put under the microscope by the broadcaster. Interested to know more about his views and research, I contacted him via email and he replied there was ‘a code of silence’ about the issue. I asked him to call me at his convenience to elaborate, but he replied he just didn’t have the time. He was too busy (was he too scared to ‘break’ the code to me?). I have never seen him interviewed anywhere else. I wanted to know in detail what exactly his thesis exposed and what more could he tell us? Why and what is the ‘code of silence’ about? Who’s being protected, why and how much is it all worth?
Then, there’s been the international betting, bribery and match-fixing scandals in international cricket that have ‘tarnished’ the credibility of the game for me (at least) and now too, FIFA, with allegations of bribery and corruption worth millions making headlines, albeit mostly in the sports’ pages. It is at least heartening to read that Swiss authorities are investigating the former FIFA president and his side-kick, on criminal grounds.
Athletics too internationally has also just been smeared as Russian athletes have been caught taking ‘banned’ substances and banned by the IAAF from participating in international competition. (It wasn’t that long ago that American athlete Marion Jones was also ‘guilty’ of the same crime. She lost her Olympic gold medals). Furthermore, according to one NFL player in America, doping, or taking performance-enhancing drugs, is rife in that code, too. Racing in Victoria has also recently been caught involved in doping horses with several trainers alleged to have injected horses with ‘cobalt’ to enhance their performance on the tracks. And of course, cycling will always remember Lance Armstrong!
The increasingly pervasive reality of ‘corruption’ in sport’, for want of a better and more lucid word, seems shrouded in an acceptable conspiracy of silence that has only occasional breakthroughs without any international, even national, inquiry into what’s going on in sport? Is it just about the megabucks now involved everywhere in so many games?
Last week, as 2015 wraps up, the former albeit disgraced coach of the club involved in the supplements saga, James Hird, slammed the Australian Rules football establishment in this country ‘citing a lack of tolerance of other points of view’, continuing to say ‘he hoped 2016 would be about “facts” rather than public relations spin when it came to sports administration.’ He went on to blame many ills in sport on ‘centralisation’. ‘Good things have come of that, because there’s been more money flowing into sport…But with that centralisation has come power and greed, and when the wrong sort of people have power they turn the sport a certain way….There are very good sporting bodies across the world, but certainly there are examples here in this country of where the centralisation of everything has meant that it’s hard for anyone to speak out against the governing body.’ He added many sporting bodies were heavy-handed when it came to criticism of their conduct. ..’I think it’s very hard for an athlete…to actually speak their mind, because strong sporting organisations do manage to have the media on their side…..the sporting body can take away your ability to play. If the threat of that is put to you, then most people are silent.’ I couldn’t put it better myself. (Sadly for me, sporting bodies are just the tip of the iceberg; a code of silence envelops so many organisations as I’ve personally experienced, particularly the psychiatrists and medical profession).
The ‘violent’ threat by the footballer is in some ways a far more dangerous and lethal issue, supposedly endangering life, but it’s whitewash is disturbingly chilling in its ramifications; not just about money per se, but the AFL’s great game itself. In football, most fans mourned the murder of Adelaide Crows’ coach Phil Walsh by his son in 2015 in a tragic family violence situation. The son actually pleaded ‘guilty’ qualified by his lawyer claiming ‘mental health issues’. The incident for the woman in the Japanese restaurant is also about ‘violence’, but there’s been NO suggestion he, too, could be ‘mentally unhinged”! Indeed, his ‘intoxicated’ mind is excused, albeit accepted as just that, alcohol induced violence that seemingly has nothing to do with his mental health beyond being drunk. Why he was SO drunk (he couldn’t recall the threats he made) and it’s not the first time he’s been drug-affected adversely, could fill pages of any mental health journal. The incident has now slid into people’s subconscious, never to surface again? We should all be demanding to know why and furthermore, what is his ‘real’ state of mind?
Furthermore, in 2005, one of the most important players in the expected Grand Final team, one that hadn’t won a flag since 1933, was ‘charged’ with striking an opponent just four weeks before the GF. It was caught on camera and showed the footballer deliberately ‘punching his opponent’ with a clenched fist out of the field of play. He should have been suspended for at least six weeks, but then, he wouldn’t have been able to play in the GF. He only received a two-week suspension, played in the GF and kicked the winning goals in the last quarter. The team won the flag by just one point. It was a tribunal ‘farce’ and so many football fans knew it; but he played and too many people opted for ‘silence’, including other clubs too. Close ranks together, united in our love of the game. Is that still the raison d’etre for our silent complicity in the corruption?
I’ve written a few letters to the newspaper The Age about the supplements saga et al; they haven’t been published. There haven’t been too many except to castigate the former club’s coach who, by my reckoning, has at last come out to speak a truth; maybe not about his involvement in the supplements saga (that we’ll never know) but about the state of sports’ administration in this world, certainly in this country at least. There have been no letters published either for or against what he said just more silence. I’ve had many letters published in The Age et al over the past three decades, but I didn’t bother writing one because so many of my letters over the past few months are obviously being deleted for whatever reasons. I’m not sure.
Certainly, it appears the media is on the side of the sporting bodies as Hird asserts in so far as there’s been not one solid and strong journalistic investigation into the sporting bodies running sport in Australia. Stories do appear from time to time which is where I mostly get my information, but no one is actually trying to ‘break’ the code of silence that encompasses sport in this country. I’m no fan of James Hird particularly (he played for the club I love to hate) but I salute him for speaking out. I just wish more would, too. He may have been motivated by bitterness as some have suggested, but whatever his motivation was at the time, his words certainly resounded convincingly with me. Whether any journalist worthy of the job description will act on his words, remains to be seen. I for one won’t be holding my breath!