It’s fair to say that there have been a few major figures in footy who have been through some tough times this year, none more so than Essendon skipper Jobe Watson. Last week on television he admitted that he’d been injected with the banned performance-enhancing drug AOD-9604 as part of his clubs’ training program over the course of the 2012 season. As far as Watson and his fellow bomber comrades were concerned, the injections they were receiving were all okay – not banned in other words – and all players signed consent forms on the advice of their club medical staff on that understanding. Following Watson’s admission, some the ladies and gentlemen of the fourth estate went into overdrive. A general view seemed to be that he should be stripped of his Brownlow medal and relieved of his captaincy. He spent the Friday evening following his interview being booed like a pantomime villain every time he touched the ball (which, as usual, was a lot) at Paterson stadium against West Coast. Watson’s tears at the end of the game looked from the outside to have been triggered by his shock at being unfairly cast in the role of bad guy. They were a physical manifestation of what must have been a very tough week. I really felt for him.
Initially I thought that I was empathising with Watson not because he’s a footballer, but simply because I like him. That is to say, I like what I know of him from interviews and the way he plays football. In the press and on television he comes across as open and thoughtful, polite and smart. He’s impressive. On the field he always finds the right place to be, gets out of situations that seem doomed, finds the ball and lifts his team. Basically, he seems like a good guy.
I realised ‘though that I actually felt for him last Friday night because he is a footballer. Boiling it down, because he’s good at playing football, he finds himself in this unpleasant place. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because someone is in the public eye, and that they chose their profession, they therefore have to deal with any unwanted attention that results from it. If they’re at the top of their game, it’s also tempting to think that the amount of money they earn must cancel out any pain they feel.
Because young men like Watson are supremely gifted at kicking a Sherrin, running, tackling and making regular people like us jump up out of their seats with excitement every week, they become vessels for those of us who don’t have those same gifts. We fill them up with impossible expectations that no ordinary person could ever realistically fulfill, and when they fail to live up to those standards, we don’t know what to do with our disappointment. Suddenly not knowing them personally allows us to reconsider the actual distance that lies between us, and re-shape it as a reason to pass judgement on their being merely human after all.
Of course, most ‘ordinary’ people have to deal with tough times on a regular basis too. Illness, the loss of a close friend or relative, job troubles, financial difficulties, broken hearts – there’s always something going on just under the surface. What strikes me as particularly tough about Watson’s situation is that when the majority of us are under personal pressure, we don’t also have to add the stress of unrelenting media scrutiny on top of the initial problem as well. It’s almost impossible to imagine how that level of attention must feel and how it might compound personal distress.
I feel for Jobe, as I feel for pretty much most young men in the AFL system when they do something ‘stupid’ (that is to say, ordinary and human). I’m not talking here about punching people in nightclubs, sexual assault or any abhorrent behaviour like that. I’m talking about the Dumb Things: the lost shirts, the pawned rings, the things we’ve all done and then regretted, embarrassing ourselves in the process. Making mistakes. The more ‘experienced’ amongst us have only to cast our minds back to the less-than-brilliant decision making processes that defined our early to late twenties to breathe a sigh of relief that neither social media nor god-like footballing abilities were a part of our lives. I speak only for myself here, but I’m thankful to have enjoyed my twenties in an era when full sleeve tribal tattoos were still the exclusive preserve of people in actual tribes, and social media was only available to people with access to a photocopier and a lot of staples. Had I possessed any kind of definable talent and received a handsome paycheque as reward, the results would have been disastrous.
Jobe Watson’s admission that he had unknowingly taken something to enhance his performance, and the reaction that flowed from it – people calling for his head, a stadium full of fans booing him – got me thinking about the stark differences that exist between his world, football, and the world I know, music, when it comes to making mistakes – and the enhancement of performance.
In football, making mistakes seems to be so rarely tolerated because by it’s very nature, the game is about winning: nobody plays footy hoping for a gallant defeat or an honourable draw after all. The search for perfection, and the need to win, means that making errors, no matter how human, is virtually impossible. Mistakes cost games. They let the team down. They’re selfish. By contrast, music – or rock and roll at least –virtually demands and celebrates mistakes. Disastrous decisions are a constant part of the narrative that’s been woven through rock’s rich tapestry, and they often serve to exalt the protagonists. We need the mistake-makers, the hot messes, the hopeless cases and the ne-er do wells. To die in a pool of your own vomit raises you to the level of a God. It’s not normal. The umbrage that met Watson’s admission of ‘drug taking’ was a pretty good indication of how the very thing that can be the undoing of someone in football, can be the making of another in music- at least for a while.
The issue with performance enhancing drugs in the rock and roll caper is that there is no issue. To take them is not considered a mistake. Of course, we’re not talking about bands being injected with anti obesity drugs or given peptides. The type of ‘edge’ that these drugs give are not of the same stripe that the humble rocker requires. The use of artificial stimulants is so prevalent in the world of modern vaudeville that it’s considered the norm, and generally speaking, people eschewing any form of chemical or alcoholic assistance are very much the exception. A fairly sure-fire way to disappoint a lot of people in a dressing room is to refuse drugs when they’re offered. It is actually considered impolite.
Down through the years there have been one or two frontmen or women who have only truly accessed their inner performer upon making the acquaintance of some type of artificial means of stimulation. A (purely hypothetical) example might come in the form of a young lead singer whose on-stage demeanour has previously alternated between ‘Deer in the Headlights’ and ‘There’s My Shoes’. Suddenly, miraculously, at some point in the middle of a tour, the very same shy and sensitive rocker starts strutting about like a frisky peacock, enthusiastically enquiring of the audience if they’re ‘feeling alright’ and if, perchance, they might be ‘ready to party?’. Such a transformation is generally a pretty telling sign that the performance has to some degree, recently undergone some enhancement. Far from being booed in manner of Watson however, the performer with baking soda, cleaning fluid and a tiny bit of cocaine coursing through their bloodstream is rewarded with rapturous applause, adulation, and even more Performance Enhancer after the show. It’s a different world to the one Jobe Watson finds himself in, to say the least.
Of course, it’s a completely different mindset in music, where the use of drugs as a way of improving ones’ performance has been romanticised and deified ever since Elvis got on the uppers. They’re a badge of honour, a way of belonging, a shared secret. If Ben Cousins had been a rock star rather than a footballer, he would almost certainly not now be living in the strange purgatory he finds himself in, with his playing achievements the second thing most people think of when his name comes up. In stark contrast, as a musician, Keith Richards has no such worries. His drug intake is not only a source of admiration and wonder amongst his fans, it’s as much of a factor in his legendary status as the songs he’s penned with his cleaner living (or possibly more discrete) partner Mick Jagger. Look at Keith! He’s still going! What a legend! Because he plays rock and roll, it’s officially sanctioned rebellion, it’s expected and we want it. We like to be the observers without having to participate ourselves- mainly because we have to get up for work in the morning.
As a young man, Richards expected to be disliked by wider society and he bonded with his band mates, friends and audience because of it. Because human frailties were celebrated in the songs he wrote and played, and they characterised the way he lived his life – drug busts, deaths, general chaos – the fact that his existence offered a rich catalogue of failure as well as success, mistakes didn’t seem unusual. Cousins, on the other hand faced an entirely different reaction once he started making mistakes, because in his world, being elegantly wasted is not considered quite so romantic. He failed. He threw it all away. It’s a tragedy. He blew it. Unlike Keith, Cousins does not, nor did he ever exist in an environment where there was an expectation that supremely talented, driven people like him make mistakes.
And that brings me back in a roundabout way, to Jobe. I feel for him and a lot of other young men like him when they trip up, because they’re footballers. They’re not perfect, but because they do what they do, their margin for error is becoming smaller and smaller. We project our unrealistic expectations on to them, put them in our fantasy leagues, tip them to win the Brownlow, and wish we had their lives without knowing what their lives are. Where I come from, the shadowy fringes of rock and roll management, imperfection is expected. Every performers’ mistakes, their regrets and heartbreaks can be poured into songs and performances, moulded into albums and played out in front of twenty people on a Tuesday night at the local, or on New Years Eve in front of 20,000 people on sloping field. On nights like these, mechanics, baristas, dressmakers, arborists, scientists, nurses, teachers, students, waitresses, hairdressers and even footballers stand together singing the words, recognising the mistakes they catalogue in themselves and the beautiful confusion of it all. None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. Maybe we should cut our sporting heroes a bit of rock and roll slack every now and then.