I consider myself a football romantic.
The best parts of the game aren’t the wins, the goals, the high-flying feats. It’s the stuff that happens on the edges, between the highlights.
It’s the moments that make you feel something. A debutant, a final farewell, Jason McCartney’s comeback from the Bali bombing, what Sam Docherty’s doing this season. That second of silence on grand final day just after the anthem has been sung, followed by the roar.
On Tuesday night we were treated to the annual Australian Football Hall of Fame ceremony.
We laughed with, and loved, Bill Dempsey’s soulful stories. We marveled at Nicky Winmar’s strength, Matthew Pavlich’s professionalism, Ted Tyson’s achievements and Mike Fitzpatrick’s contribution.
And yet, there was a ghost sitting in the corner, a giant elephant-shaped ghost named Ben Cousins.
Cousins is not in the Australian Football Hall of Fame. There are only three players in AFL history to have achieved the following: premiership, Brownlow, six All-Australian blazers, four club best and fairest awards. They are Gary Ablett Jr, Chris Judd and Cousins. If you add in the AFL Rising Star award, Cousins stands alone.
His football prowess levitates with the greatest we’ve seen. But this isn’t about football, is it? It’s about society’s relentless punishment.
The Hall of Fame committee does a fantastic job. It’s not an easy task, with so many greats from the past 150 years who deserve recognition. A backlog of fitting recipients, the number grows every year.
Officially, the committee considers candidates based on record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship and character. Players are eligible five years after retirement.
The all-time greats such as Judd, Michael Voss, Leigh Matthews and Tony Lockett don’t stand in line. The first year they’re able, they’re in. Unless they’ve been naughty.
The ‘character’ element means the bad boys must wait. Gary Ablett Sr was delayed six years before being given the nod. Wayne Carey’s induction was postponed two years.
Cousins has been eligible for nine years. There’s no hiding from the ugly stuff. Cousins was given more chances than Forrest Gump gave Jenny. He treated his body like a punching bag for the better part of two decades. He went from poster boy to cautionary tale, a slow-motion car crash.
He did it all while being the most recognisable face in Perth.
Nic Naitanui and Nat Fyfe have dominated football coverage in WA for a decade, but those two combined couldn’t come close to early Cousins’ rock-star status.
When you’re up that high, the fall is far greater.
Drugs destroy lives, break up families and ruin reputations.
There are people in all our lives who struggle with addiction.
Anyone who’s navigated the mess it creates knows one thing – you never give up on the person. Love, hope and humanity won’t allow it.
Having worked with Cousins this year, I’ve been impressed with his diligence, work ethic and how humble he is. There’s no arrogance, no toxic masculinity. He’s just a guy who has lived through more challenges and drama, a lot of it self-inflicted, than most people see in a lifetime.
He is still standing. He loves his kids, he loves the game, he’s still trying to be better. Will there be more mistakes? Maybe. Hopefully not. But neither the sins of the past nor any future misstep should stand for crucifixion.
If not for his transgressions, he’d be considered the greatest West Coast Eagle of all time. If not for his mistakes, he’d be coaching, or working in media full-time.
How long do we hold this stuff over his head? How long does he have to pay?
How long do we pretend that he’s the only naughty boy?
We’re supposed to have compassion, to believe in redemption. The bad shouldn’t eliminate the good in life, otherwise we’d all live a pretty miserable existence.
Cousins may never shake the shame and the guilt associated with his actions, but we don’t have to exclude him from his rightful place amongst the greats. He doesn’t owe the football world anything anymore. Yes, he ‘brought the game into disrepute’, but in a lot of ways, the most damage Cousins ever did was to himself.
As a result, his football career is still standing in the shadowy race at Adelaide Oval in 2007, slumped against the wall. Let’s bring it into the light where it belongs.
Upon his arrest later that year, we saw that tattoo.
The words permanently etched across his bare chest so famously have controlled the narrative for too long.
An acceptance of the unpredictable fortunes of existence.
Such is life. It’s just the way it is.
But it doesn’t have to be. It’s time to move forward. Ben Cousins belongs in the Hall of Fame.