Sport AFL The AFL changing tack in the war on drugs
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The AFL changing tack in the war on drugs

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The reaction to Harley Bennell’s picture on the front page of Thursday’s Herald Sun shows how the winds of change have blown through our attitude towards drugs in the past decade.

In case you missed it, the Gold Coast Suns player was plastered across Australia’s biggest-selling daily newspaper sizing up a desk of white powder like it was crème brûlée back in 2013.

Those who spoke about Bennell on Thursday expressed concern about his wellbeing, above all else.

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His coach Rodney Eade spoke of his “headspace”.

AFL chief Gillon McLachlan said: “The welfare of the player today is our major concern and this is our priority.”

Ben Cousins in 2008, when he was suspended for 'bringing the game into disrepute'. Photo: Getty
Ben Cousins in 2008, when he was suspended for ‘bringing the game into disrepute’. Photo: Getty

The AFL Players’ Association said it had been “working closely” with Bennell “to provide him with as much support as possible”.

Let’s be clear. Although he’s not playing this weekend, Bennell hasn’t been charged with anything.

But contrast the response to the picture with the treatment handed down to Ben Cousins eight years ago, when he was cut adrift by the West Coast Eagles, and then the AFL as a whole, for bringing the game into disrepute.

Granted, Cousins’ rap sheet was long and distinguished, but no one at AFL House seemed particularly concerned with his “headspace” when he was dragging ‘the brand’ through the mud.

Cousins, by all accounts, is in as dark a place as ever.

So it was refreshing to hear Eade, McLachlan and the AFLPA say Bennell – who is just 22 years old – won’t be thrown on the scrap heap.

McLachlan flagged a change in the AFL’s controversial three-strikes illicit drugs policy.

“We’ll have a new policy in place for the start of the off-season,” he said.

People have always sought to take leave of their senses.

The drugs of choice can vary, from a six-pack of VB, to ice, perhaps the most insidious drug of the age.

Some enjoy it more than others, and some enjoy it so much they develop a problem and can’t stop.

Guy McKenna had no inkling about Ben Cousins' drug problems, and his young Suns also liked a good time. Photo: Getty
Guy McKenna had no inkling about Ben Cousins’ drug problems, and his young Suns also liked a good time. Photo: Getty

A two-year-old photo of Harley Bennell in a Hobart hotel doesn’t mean he has a drug problem.

But what’s happened to the Gold Coast this year – a cataclysmic form slump and a series of player suspensions for breaches of team rules (that old chestnut) – points to a far wider issue of culture.

One wonders what coach Guy McKenna was seeing or hearing up there on the Coast.

McKenna, who said on Open Mike this year that he had no idea Ben Cousins was taking drugs under his captaincy at West Coast, may be footy’s equivalent of Mr Magoo.

“Never saw it, there was no indication,” he said of Cousins.

It appears McKenna’s nearsightedness extended to his term as coach of the Suns.

They were a club that was given every chance for success.

Who would have thought that assembling the country’s best 18-year-old footballers on the Sunshine Coast on lucrative contracts – with leadership from Karmichael Hunt and Gary Ablett Jr – would lead to a culture problem?

The AFL has invested too much in the Suns to see them fall into oblivion.

The events of the past few months show emergency surgery is needed, or else the Suns face a bleak future.

And what, dare we ask, about the ‘headspace’ of Gold Coast supporters?

After the season from hell, culminating in seeing Bennell front and centre, surely they would be considering trading in their team for a more cohesive unit?

Talk to West Coast and Essendon supporters about the toll drug scandals of vastly differing natures took on their love of the game and you’ll get some idea of how much footy fans invest in the 22 blokes who take the field each week.

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