Insomnia and late night TV lead to some interesting revelations about a notorious Aussie football legend.
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Photo by Chanel 7
April 11, 2020
I try to keep to my 9 to 5 routine, but today things have got the better of me. I woke up at 4am, showered at lunchtime and now, I’m awake at midnight.
Not being able to get back to sleep, I go into the kitchen to make a cup of herbal tea. My son is up watching a documentary about former football star, Ben Cousins, and invites me to join him. I have no interest in sports but when your 20-something son wants you to hang out you take the opportunity. You never know when it might happen again.
My son is sports mad and growing up, he and his mates idolised Ben Cousins, arguably the best player of his day. But all I remember about him was getting arrested for taking drugs. I remember seeing him on the news, handcuffed and shirtless, being forced into a police car.
I could never reconcile in my mind the idea that someone in peak athletic form could be a drug addict. Ben Cousins’s body was superbly muscular and his skin glowed with good health.
“How could he be a drug addict?” I say. “Don’t drugs destroy your body?
“He trained really hard,” my son explains.
But I still don’t get it.
We watch the two-part series Such is Life: The Troubled Times of Ben Cousins. The introduction shows a fresh-faced Ben Cousins warning of the dangers of drug addiction. Staring straight into the camera, he is a talking head reading off an autocue. His warnings about drugs are empty, because he seems to be having the time of his life while his family are distraught with worry.
The psychologist interviewed for this film says that Ben’s adult life had only been about “receiving and not giving.”
“No wonder he’s a narcissistic prick,” I tell my son. “He doesn’t know any better.”
The second documentary, Coming Clean, is hard to watch. Filmed ten years later in 2020, Ben has changed a lot. He no longer looks like a little boy. His face is weathered and there are patches of grey in his shaggy beard. A plain white t-shirt replaces the immaculate dress shirt and dove grey blazer he wore in the earlier film.
But the most striking change is in his demeanour. The smart arse, rapid fire answers have been replaced by long pauses of introspection, where he struggles to find his words and evade the interviewer’s confronting questions. And they are confronting.
Ben’s life has not been easy in the ten years since the first documentary was filmed. He has become estranged from his family, lives “between joints” and has spent time in prison.
Ben made a go of it in prison, getting a job in the cleaning party, responsible for the prison maintenance. Getting a job in prison is not easy, and not everyone does. And Ben says with a smile that it is work he thinks he could do on the outside.
“So, from Brownlow to garbo, inside a jail,” says interviewer, Basil Zempilas. Zempilas then goes on to quote the Cold Play lyrics: “I used to rule the world, and now I sweep the streets I used to own.”
“That interviewer’s a bastard,” says my son.
And I am inclined to agree.
Zempilas brings up some deeply personal issues, making Ben look most uncomfortable, even pained. Like the near naked selfie that became public. The interviewer asks Ben why he took the photo in the first place.
“Trying to get a root,” Ben responds with his characteristic cheekiness.
“And did it have the desired effect?”
Ben looks uncomfortable. “No, it didn’t.”
Next, Zempilas reads the letter Ben wrote to actress, Lynne McGranger of TV Soap, Home and Away. The private letter is heartfelt and respectful. Grainger expresses surprise that he wrote to her and she reads it on air. She supposes he reached out because of the character she plays, a former addict who takes in young people struggling with addiction.
She wishes him all the best with his recovery and points him in the direction of his higher power.
Zempilas takes Ben to task about the trouble he has caused the AFL by “bringing the game of football into disrepute.” Chastened, Ben is apologetic, but in an earlier interview he says the AFL wouldn’t care if he was hanging from the beams in the roof.
Young footballers devote themselves to serving an apprenticeship that they cannot take with them into later life, after the game is over. Like modern day gladiators, they put their bodies on the line for the sake of public entertainment and when they are too old and broken to amuse us, we throw them on the scrap heap.
Throughout the film, Ben says he wants to be normal and that he would love to be living a traditional, family life. But after the life he has lived, how can that be possible?
The AFL have turned their back on the problem child that they have created and turned him out into a world for which he is in no way prepared.
The documentary finishes and my son goes out into the cold night air. He sits at the far corner of the outdoor table and the red tip of his cigarette glows in the darkness. I don’t like him smoking but I tell myself it could be worse.
I got both my sons into every sport going when they were young. Football, cricket, basketball. I thought all that running around would use up their energy and keep them out of trouble.
But Ben Cousin’s has shown the flaw in my thinking.
I say goodnight to my son and head off to bed.
But I don’t know if I will sleep tonight.
Coming Clean by Chanel 7