What to do with players accused of criminal conduct: to play or not play … is that the question?

Jesse Stringer’s assault charge and subsequent suspension from all Senior AFL activities for the remainder of the year has pushed the Australian Rugby Union’s decision to select Kurtley Beale for this weekend’s test match against Wales to the forefront of the minds of most sports followers this week.

The conundrum of allowing a player of any code accused, but not convicted, of a crime to play at the highest level of their code is not a new one albeit it is one that in the digital age in which we live more focus than ever before is placed on.

This is not a problem that is going to go away: simply put the sportstars of today are becoming younger and, whilst all conduct can not be talked away as juvenile hijinks or just “boys being boys”, young men (and women) are the demographic most likely to end up in some form of trouble with the law when alcohol is involved. 

In recent times we have seen a variety of approaches from clubs and the administrators of those clubs to allegations of inappropriate conduct.   Variously across the codes and in no particular order, some examples are:

  • Neville Costigan being dismissed by the Brisbane Broncos after he was charged with drink driving (but before he was convicted).
  • Todd Carney having his contract terminated and being deregistered from the NRL (by the Canberra Raiders) for urinating on a patron at a Canberra nightclub amidst allegations of drunk and reckless driving (among other things).
  • St Kilda player Andrew Lovett having his contract terminated after being charged with rape, a charge he was ultimately acquitted of.
  • Brett Stewart being removed as the “face of rugby league” and stood down for a period following allegations (ultimately found to be fabricated) of sexual assault.
  • Robert Lui being released from his contract with the West Tigers after being charged with various counts of assault against his partner.
  • Robert Lui, again, being suspended from playing rugby league for a year after being found guilty of assault against his partner.
  • Isaac Gordan being suspended by the NRL for 9 matches as a result of being charged over a domestic violence incident.
  • Nick D’arcy being removed from the 2008 Olympic team after being charged (and before his guilty plea) with assault having being involved a brawl with a former male team-mate.
  • Jake Friend having his contract terminated after falling asleep whilst drunk in the back of a cab and failing to pay the fare (for which he was charged).
  • Brett Seymour being sacked by two separate clubs over uncharged alcohol fuelled misconduct.

This is a small sampler of the punishment meted out by clubs and administrators across a number of sports in recent years for questionable player behaviour.  I make no comment on the strength or weakness of the punishments given out above.  They are what they are.

In addition to the examples above, and I note that I do not purport to know all of the facts of either case, now Messrs Stringer and Beale find themselves before the Courts on assault charges.  In both cases alcohol was involved.  Indeed in the case of Stringer the drinking before the incident has consistently been described as a “marathon”.

When one traverses all of the cases noted above, the common element appears to be the involvement of alcohol.  Equally, it also must be noted that some of the “offenders” noted above are repeat “offenders”.  The travails of the likes of Messrs Carney, Friend, Seymour and Lui are not isolated incidents or one offs: the matters noted above are portions of ongoing conduct which, again, has been consistently alcohol fuelled.

Whilst sports fans lament the lack of a “punishment” for Beale’s alleged conduct, there seems to me to be two far greater concerns arising out of the Beale and Stringer cases.  They are:

  1. Why are the punishments previously meted out to players who have been charged with assault NOT (in addition to the usual deterrents) having a deterring effect?
  2. Is there an alcohol problem in sport?

For the latter question, the usual glib responses are “they are just young men having fun” and “the problem is not alcohol, it is people pestering the stars when they are just trying to have a quiet drink”.  I can not accept either premise: if you are not a sportstar you are not absolved from punishment if you are an idiot or abusive when you are drunk.  The alternate glib response is “but that is the way it has always been” also does not fly with me because community standards have changed since the days of listening to your sport of choice on the transistor radio.

My personal view (and I admit I have had my own problems with alcohol in the past) is that there is a problem with alcohol in sport.  Part of the problem is obvious and is that, unlike most 18-25 year olds going out for a night on the town who have to pull up when their funds run out, sportstars have an unlimited available spend when they go out.  Of course they, the sportstars, are going to get drunk: presented with an bottomless wallet wouldn’t you? 

The former question is one to which there is no answer other than the punishments being meted out are not having a deterrent effect.  Equally, even if they were, I wonder if a player full of their chosen liquid refreshment would even think of the consequences before they step over the line like the players in the examples set out above.    

That being the case, I do not think the question of whether a player charged with a crime should play for their team after being so charged is the right question.  As fans we need to be asking of the sportstars and the people who coach and administer the games we all love whether enough is being done at all levels to seek to stop the cycle of alcohol fuelled violence that continues to pervade our daily sports fixes.  I, for one, do not think enough is being done: the evidence that this is the case is available for all to see above and in the sports pages every day.

In the end of course, after all of the hypothesising above, we are still left with the scenario where two elite sportsmen have been charged with assault and one is playing for his country on the weekend while the other is sitting on the sidelines.  I am left to wonder: how many more assault charges there needs to be before the question I raise in the preceding paragraph is seriously considered?