Bounce of the ball

‘I’m like a bigger brother’: Karmichael Hunt and Harley Bennell

AAP/Dan Peled

In March 2015, Karmichael Hunt pleaded guilty to four counts of cocaine possession. This coincided with the end of his career at the Gold Coast Suns AFL club.

At the close of the court case, a colleague of mine praised Hunt for “taking ownership” of his crime, largely by offering frank admissions to police. Hunt, it seems, had followed the dictum that honesty is the best policy. His testimony, provided in a sworn statement to police, has recently “found its way” into the hands of a newspaper.

Law enforcement authorities have had that data for several months, yet not acted on it (beyond prosecuting Hunt). This infers that police did not believe there was sufficient evidence to charge those who were alleged to consume cocaine at the end-of-season parties Hunt alluded to. His admissions to police were candid yet ambiguous: “I was vaguely aware that most people there were using the cocaine at nights”, and:

I don’t recall who did and didn’t use it as I was drunk and affected by the cocaine.

In terms of prosecuting individuals, statements like these are unlikely to stand up in court.

It is in the court of public opinion that Hunt’s claims are now being played out. Both the Suns and the AFL Players’ Association have been prompted to investigate press reports to ascertain which (if any) of the club’s employees were a party to illicit drug use, and what sanctions might apply in the case of proven fault.

Media interest in the case has since climaxed with the publication of photos, albeit more than two years old, of Suns player Harley Bennell appearing to be about to consume an illegal drug. It needs to be stressed that none of this has relevance to WADA because it does not test for, nor penalise illicit drug use out of competition.

However, the information is of interest to the AFL, which (with the co-operation of players) has accepted responsibility for trying to militate against its athletes using substances like cocaine in private or social situations. As I have discussed elsewhere, there is a range of health and reputational goals associated with the AFL’s illicit drugs policy, though arguably some elements are in need of reform.

The wider societal context is more challenging than ever: a 2014 United Nations report indicated that Australia ranked fourth in the world for cocaine use, third for methamphetamines, and first for ecstasy.

A particularly intriguing element of this case is the relationship between Hunt and Bennell. As is well known, Hunt was targeted by the AFL to provide profile to the Suns. He had previously shone in both rugby codes; there was now enormous interest to see if he could flourish in Australian Rules football. As it turned out, Hunt performed modestly, playing 44 games in 4 seasons. When Hunt retired in August 2014, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan was nonetheless effusive:

You have to look at the profile, the brand, the marketing that he’s provided, as well as the leadership.

The reputational cache attached to Hunt has since taken a nose-dive. Yet, according to observers, Hunt did play a positive role at the Suns by virtue of his on-field professionalism, attitude to training, and support for other players. In teammate Bennell, Hunt saw an enormously talented young athlete who was struggling to settle into the world of professional football.

Hunt deserves credit for taking Bennell under his wing, for sharing his home and by providing friendship to a young man who had grown up, in a family of nine, with a father in jail. In 2012, Hunt was quoted thus:

I’m like a bigger brother – I can still have fun with him [Bennell], but I can also be serious and chat to him and give him advice.

Hunt was, for all the world, a positive influence. As McLachlan concluded:

People generally accept that Harley Bennell wouldn’t be at that club now without Karmichael Hunt, because he has been such a mentor to him.

For all of Hunt’s virtuous behaviour towards Bennell, the testimony of the former and the photo of the latter implies that Hunt’s mentoring may not always have been in Bennell’s best interests. Hunt’s Super 15 season is over, and maybe some will not wish to play alongside him in 2016.

Bennell, meanwhile, has been told by the Suns not to play this week. The much larger question is whether he will be lost to football, and if so what would become of Harley Bennell? Most of us benefit from good mentors. Bennell is in need of one.