Footballers behaving badly

No doubt many are baffled by the behaviour of some of our elite footballers. There seems to be a continuous stream of intoxication, recreational drug taking, violent and sexual assault, sexist and racist behaviour. I haven’t seen any research as to whether footballers behave any worse than accountants, tennis players or politicians, but a minority of them certainly succeed in attracting a disproportionate amount of public attention.

An interesting issue is the apparent inability of football administrators to eliminate this behaviour despite their best efforts to project a positive image to sponsors and the general public. One of the problems for administrators is to determine appropriate sanctions that are then applied consistently across the broad spectrum of offences.

In AFL the most infamous recent case involves confessed recreational drug addict Ben Cousins, who never actually returned a positive drug test. Cousins was suspended from the game for 12 months and delisted by his club, after he helped the Eagles win a premiership. He has since made a positive return to AFL and his behaviour appears far less erratic. If you view an action as being right when it results in positive consequences, you would agree this suspension was in the best interests of the player and the AFL.

More recently another superstar Chris Judd was suspended for an on-field incident where his hand touched the face of another player. For a second or two he probed the opposition player’s face. There was no contact made to the eyes, no force or reaction from the opponent and also no plausible explanation from Judd as to what he was doing.

Judd tried to defend himself with humour, causing a hysterical reaction from the media and some members of the public. Judd was suspended for three matches, which is a moderate level suspension, equivalent to the penalty for punching another player and causing some harm.

Using a consequential approach, Judd’s actions were a non-event, and it seems he was judged on assumed intent, or the potential to cause harm if he gauged his opponent’s eyes. If two similar incidents (a violent punch versus touching the face) were tried in the judicial system there would be no similarity in sentencing as Judd would have no case to answer. Is there a difference between a person throwing a punch or touching someone’s face in public or during a footy match? Suspensions handed out by football tribunals suggest there are significant differences.

Another AFL star Brendan Fevola sexually harassed three women at a public event whilst heavily intoxicated. His behaviour is reported as a possible case of sexual assault. If this can be proven he will be suspended by the AFL and face legal penalty. The response of the club was to trade Fevola to another club.

The inconsistent application of penalties exacerbates the problem of footballers behaving badly. A penalty isn’t as effective a deterrent if the players are unsure what the punishment will be. An illness such as drug addiction results in an extreme penalty whereas punching an opponent senseless attracts a shorter suspension. Furthermore, how relevant is off field behaviour to an athlete’s right to pursue their occupation?

More certainty could be achieved by judging an action on its consequences rather than trying to guess the intent of the offending player. Those imposing the penalties should ensure it matches the offence, rather than being influenced by attempts to appease sponsors, win the battle of the codes, or win a game of footy.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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