Geelong Advertiser, Wednesday 21 November 2007, p. 19.
When sports officials want to bring someone to heel they often resort to an omnibus charge of bringing the game into disrepute. This has always existed as a weapon in most of the major codes, but its use has become more frequent in recent times, in part because of the increased power and influence of the sponsors of sport, who now seem to believe they own the games. This explains not only the use of the charge but also against whom it may be directed.
So Ben Cousins of the West Coast Eagles can be brought within its ambit despite the fact that the police charges against him for drug possession, which triggered the most recent outcry, were very largely dropped. Not surprisingly, since the only drug found in the car he was travelling in was valium. Subsequently Cousins escaped to the United States, where instead of spending all his time in a rehabilitation clinic, he apparently engaged in a cocaine binge before heading briefly for the clinic. Now, Cousins may be a very silly young man, or he may be suffering from an illness, perhaps self-inflicted, but when playing the game he did not, as far as I know, ever fail an official drug test and he did not, apparently, use performance-enhancing, as distinct from ‘recreational’ drugs, used by a significant minority of young men of his age group. So in what precise sense has he brought the game into disrepute?
What then are we to make of the other case which has generated far fewer headlines, that of Richard Pratt, chair of Carlton Football Club and head of the Visy Group of packaging companies? He has been found guilty of defrauding the Australian public, you and me, of millions of dollars by running a cartel to raise prices beyond the level they would have been in open competition. He has been fined substantially for this but retains his position as head of the football club.
It is ironic that when he engages in cartel activity in his business affairs, he is guilty of a crime, but when he is involved in football he takes part in a cartel which is socially sanctioned, the Australian Football League. This body is, as many people have pointed out, a tightly controlled monopoly organisation, many of whose activities are clearly in restraint of trade. Some of them have been challenged and overturned in the past, as for example by Silvio Foschini in a famous case, but others remain, including the draft system which can send an unwilling young player into the den of iniquity which is the West Coast Eagles.
Arguably a convicted person, even if this is a civil rather than a criminal case, is more guilty of bringing the game into disrepute than a recreational-drug user, but don’t expect to see the charge brought by the AFL against the head of the Carlton Football Club. Only a public outcry of equivalent proportions to that against Ben Cousins will do the trick and that only because image is all in the modern sporting world. Others involved with Carlton then might exert some pressure on Pratt to resign, but otherwise his misdemeanours will be swept under the carpet while Cousins is hung out to dry.