A recent report on the death of ex-whiz-kid skateboarder Ben Pappas, whose weighed-down body was found in the water off Melbourne’s Docklands, outlined his fall from teenage skate phenomenon to down-and-out drug tragic. Apparently he had become addicted to cocaine by 17, and at 21 was convicted of drug smuggling; he wasn’t jailed, but had his passport suspended for 3 years, effectively ending his skating career in the States, where he had been raking in $15,000 per month at his peak.
That sentence was inappropriate, surely? Rehab and community service, or even a suspended jail sentence, would have served Pappas and the community better than effectively taking away his livelihood and barring him from competing at top level in the sport in which he excelled. Precluding him from travelling to the US for 3 years effectively ended his career – quite a sentence for 103 grams of coke. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to fill in the rest of the story.
Addiction of any kind is a signifier of personal dysfunction of some sort; addicts are never well-balanced folk of beaming disposition and buoyant self-esteem whose only problem is intemperate use of their drug of choice – there are always serious issues behind the addiction, which is a symptom, not a cause. The psychological landscape of the addict is not a million miles away from that of elite sportspersons. At top levels, sportspersons have to be obsessive about their sport – although “focused” is a more palatable adjective – and the dark side of obsession is addiction.
Thus, taking away an elite athlete’s opportunity to excel at the highest level is to deny them their primary source of gratification and status, and the wealth and trappings that go with it. That would be cause for frustration, if not depression, for many, leaving a dangerous void. Frustration + (depression) + obsessive personality + denial of primary focus = search for compensation. For an addict, that search is not a search at all: the drug, of course, is the immediate easy fix, more compelling than ever in that set of circumstances.
I’m not buying into the rumour-fed Cousins discussion that has been raging across the nation, except to say that I hope the Eagles admin does not maintain a hard line on their decision to preclude him from training with the team he has served so courageously and successfully, or even with a WAFL team. I do not know the full background of the case – few of the gaggle of journos and others mouthing off about the “fallen star” and making all sorts of judgements do, either – and so would not presume to opine on the actions of the Eagles admin in responding to the Cousins crisis.
I do hope, though, that they put Cousins’ welfare first as they claim – that is, not as a player integral to their success, but as a person. However, if Cousins is battling drug dependency, he is going to find the already formidable fight much harder if he remains ostracised from the playing group, and I cannot see how it could be in his best interests to bar him from training indefinitely. Cousins the player and Cousins the person are easily separated rhetorically by some club official, but perhaps not so easily by the person himself, or those who have shed blood with him in quest of a premiership.
Going through rehab in the public spotlight is going to be excruciating; doing it without the support and familiarity of his brothers in arms on the training track seems an unnecessary measure – a cruelty, even – that may not be in Cousins’ interests or the club’s.
It is to be hoped that the first priority of the Eagles admin is not to demonstrate to the AFL that they are irreproachable in their commitment to ridding the competition of the drug scourge, but rather, to do whatever it takes to assist one of the greatest and gutsiest stars to play the game back to his rightful position doing what he does best out on the ground. Taking a hard line by default is not necessarily the best approach. Cousins deserves a little more empathy and imagination than that from those who manage the club he has given so much to.
I’d suggest that others in the Eagle camp – the management – will be under as much scrutiny in the weeks ahead as Cousins. And perhaps they would do well to bear in mind the bare bones of the Ben Pappas story.