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The Cousins suspension - an exercise in misguided moralising

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Monday, 26 March 2007

AFL footballers have no less right to drink to excess and over-react to relationship breakups than doctors, judges, plumbers and journalists, none of whom lose their livelihoods as a result of their excesses. And detecting the use of (non-performance enhancing) illegal drugs is a police matter, not the role of an overbearing employer. That’s why the Eagles suspsensionof star player Ben Cousins is misguided.

The Cousins’ suspension also highlights the dispiriting levels to which the community has plummeted in relation to preferring the fanatical pursuit of fictitious feel-good messages, such as sport and alcohol can’t mix, to honest and accurate portrayals of events.

But doesn’t the misbehaviour of Cousins send the wrong message to our kids? And what about sponsors, shouldn’t clubs ensure that their brand name is not tainted by wayward players?


While there is no doubt that Cousins is a role model for many children, he didn’t voluntarily assume this role and he shouldn’t be burdened with extra responsibility because parents and the community are incapable of properly directing young minds to where they should look for their moral and personal education.

Parents need to inform their children that they should look to the likes of Cousins for inspiration regarding what he does well. That starts and ends with kicking a footy around the park. Cousins shouldn’t have his interests set back because of parental dereliction.

Moreover, kids grow to be adults and it does them a great disservice to forge a community built on deceit. People are flawed. This even applies to beautiful people such as sport stars. Yet, it is possible to have a meaningful life even while dealing with difficult issues.

Of this, Ben Cousins is a stellar example. Despite reports of heavy drinking he is a Brownlow medalist, former club captain, premiership player, four-time club best-and-fairest, six-time All-Australian player and the hardest running midfielder in the AFL.

All this while reportedly afflicted by “substance abuse” problems. It shows the heights that a person can achieve despite being afflicted with considerable personal challenges. This is the message that we should be sending our children. It might even be a source of inspiration for our children when they develop adult problems of the type Cousins is now experiencing.

And as for sponsors, if they want to put their money behind moral, as opposed to popular, causes there are plenty of schools, hospitals and philosophy departments where their cash can be directed. Yet, somehow I don’t sense we’re about to be swamped with images of cashed-up philosophers - even in in tight shorts - anytime soon.


Concerns about the impact on team spirit of having a plonk on the park are misplaced. The Eagles are last year’s premiers and favourites for the 2007 flag. It seems that alcoholic ball-getters are far less problematic than squeaky clean passengers.

In the end, work (whether in the sporting arena or other domains) is about doing a defined task. So long as a person has the skills and acumen to complete the task there is generally no place in a fair-minded and rational society to deny them such an opportunity on account of their failure to pass a moral bookkeeping exercise or even a criminal record check.

Of course, Cousins’s exploits go beyond the occasional bender. He was found guilty of criminal misconduct after doing a runner from a booze bus. This, however, doesn’t strengthen the case for his sacking. In fact, it highlghts a wide-ranging problem in the community relating to employment discrimination against people with prior convictions.

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A version of this was published in The Age on March 25, 2007.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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