Full extent of West Coast Eagles’ shocking drug culture exposed
The below is an edited extract from The Boys’ Club by Michael Warner (Hachette Australia, $33).
‘Flatlining in Las Vegas’
Fairfax investigative journalist Andrew Rule was lying low at his Camberwell home in Melbourne’s inner-east when a trusty old contact called out of the blue.
It was early March 2007 and Rule, enjoying a well-earned week off, had just completed a stint at Good Weekend magazine before a return to the Sunday Age.
With a contact book reaching deep into the police, business, criminal and sporting worlds, Rule knew where to hunt for a yarn.
But this one found him.
His contact told him about a West Coast Eagles player who had collapsed and “flatlined” outside a Las Vegas hotel on a wild end-of-season trip in October 2006.
Rule called a second source with connections in Perth and the story ran as a strip on page one on 11 March 2007.
“Elite footballers are young, rich and often act as if they are above the law, but they are not invincible,” Rule’s first paragraph read. “A high-flying premiership player learned that the hard way last spring when he nearly died in an American hospital.
“The strange circumstances surrounding a super-fit professional athlete being revived after ‘flatlining’ is a story most football insiders know – but none talk about publicly.”
The source for Rule’s story was a veteran football administrator who said he first told two senior AFL writers in Melbourne about the Las Vegas incident. Both, he said, declined to run it.
Rule’s second source firmed up the yarn but wouldn’t be quoted. “Mate, it’s right, but they’d hang me off the grandstand if I went on the record,” the figure told Rule. “It’s such a small world, football.”
The player who had “flatlined” in Las Vegas, West Coast Eagles premiership midfielder Chad Fletcher, was not named in Rule’s story, but it opened the floodgates.
The previous December, Eagles superstar and Brownlow medallist Ben Cousins had been arrested after being found intoxicated and dazed outside the Melbourne Convention Centre. A photograph of Cousins asleep on the street was plastered across the front page of the Herald Sun, but footy’s ticking time bomb — the West Coast Eagles illicit drugs crisis — was yet to explode.
Cousins had quit the Eagles captaincy in February 2006 after abandoning his car and running from police near a breath-testing station in Perth but was still considered the club’s “spiritual leader”. Six months later he held the premiership cup aloft on the MCG alongside replacement captain Chris Judd after the Eagles defeated Sydney by one point in an epic grand final.
Within days, the Eagles boys were in Las Vegas on the football trip that would nearly cost Fletcher his life.
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Chris Mainwaring tragically died after a drug overdose. Photo: George SalpigtidisSource:News Corp Australia
Rule’s “flatlining” scoop led to a bigger one.
He was contacted by an amateur soccer player who read the story and told Rule how he had come to the rescue of Cousins on the night he had collapsed near the Melbourne Convention Centre in December 2006.
The soccer player told Rule he had encountered a man “shivering” on the street just after 2 o’clock on a Saturday morning — “and I realised it was Ben Cousins”.
Rule’s second front-page story in a week was the lead story of the 18 March 2007 edition of the Sunday Age.
The West Coast Eagles drugs scandal was out of the blocks.
The soccer player offered candid details of Cousins’ distressed state when he found him collapsed on the street. “He was sweating and paranoid. He had his hands over his face and was looking around as if he was frightened someone was chasing him,” the witness said. “I think I can tell the difference between drunk and drugs and I’d say he was tripping out bad — his brain was fried on some hard-core stuff.”
Rule’s two big yarns, a week apart, coincided with another Cousins meltdown out west. On Tuesday, 20 March, the superstar midfielder was stood down by his club for missing a training session. His parents, Bryan and Stephanie, revealed their son was battling problems related to substance abuse and the following day he was suspended indefinitely after the Eagles found out he’d been out on a three-day bender.
On 22 March, the AFL held its annual season launch at the Carousel on Albert Park Lake in Melbourne. Andrew Demetriou and Gillon McLachlan were seen locked in heated conversation outside the venue before proceedings kicked off. A big Eagles problem was about to become a full-blown AFL crisis.
“I was a bit outside the magic circle and I worked out a way to write it,” Rule recalled of his Las Vegas yarn. “There is no doubt that established football writers had known about it and were dismayed that it had broken elsewhere.
“And the Ben Cousins story really put the match to the fire and away it went. The AFL were really rattled by it, because Ben was the pin-up boy.”
The gala Albert Park function, where the sixteen team captains were unveiled on a floating pontoon, was also Mike Fitzpatrick’s first as AFL Commission chairman. Ron Evans, who had been battling abdominal cancer, had passed away on 12 March just a month after retiring from his position.
It was a seminal moment in the history of the game, unleashing a ruthless Fitzpatrick–Demetriou double act upon the competition.
Cousins’ life has gone off the rails.Source:Supplied
Ben Cousins’ spiralling drug addiction got the better of him before a ball had been kicked in season 2007.
On 31 March, he flew out to a Californian rehabilitation facility specialising in methamphetamine addiction. Returning home a month later, he appeared on national TV, admitted to substance abuse and apologised for his fall from grace.
In late June, Cousins convinced Demetriou and AFL chief medical officer Dr Peter Harcourt that he had overcome his issues before making a stunning 38-possession return in a game against Sydney at Subiaco Oval on 21 July. A hamstring strain ended his season in the qualifying final against Port Adelaide.
It would be an off-season from hell for West Coast and an AFL administration that would be determined to smother the extent of the scandal.
On the night of 1 October 2007, retired Eagles champion and Perth TV identity Chris Mainwaring was found dead from a drug overdose at his Cottesloe home. An investigation by the Western Australia state coroner found Mainwaring had died from a cocaine-caused seizure.
The coroner’s report revealed Cousins had visited Mainwaring’s home on two occasions on the day of his death and entered a bedroom where he “saw a quantity of a substance which he believed to be cocaine on a plate”.
Mainwaring’s death devastated the Perth football-loving community, but was just the start of a shocking sequence of drug-fuelled events.
Fifteen days later, images of a shirtless Cousins being arrested for drugs possession and escorted to the back of a WA Police divisional van flashed around the country. The freshly inked “Such is Life” tattoo splashed across his torso offered a window into the soul of a one-time football golden boy who had seriously lost his way.
It was the final straw for West Coast (and the AFL), who sacked him at an emergency board meeting the next night. Cousins, Eagles chiefs declared, was “terribly sick” and needed to focus “solely and only on his health”.
The drugs charges against Cousins were dropped but on 19 November the AFL Commission suspended him for twelve months anyway for bringing the game into disrepute.
Astonishingly, the drug-addicted champion had never failed an AFL illicit drug test throughout his career.
But when it came to drug abuse, the Cousins story was just the tip of the iceberg in footy’s wild west. And quite clearly, Demetriou’s three-strikes drugs policy, the one he fought so fiercely against the government and WADA to implement, was a flop. Drugs were rife and full-blown addicts were escaping detection.
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Cousins’ life spiralled out of control.Source:News Limited
Determined to protect their brands — and themselves — senior AFL and club officials worked overtime to cover up a decade of rampant illicit drug use by West Coast Eagles stars. At its heart was the belief of many in football circles that the club’s 2006 premiership was tainted by the widespread abuse of cocaine, speed, ice, ecstasy and marijuana.
In a move aimed at investigating the depth of the problem, but at the same time keeping it all in-house, the AFL Commission turned to retired Supreme Court judge E. William Gillard, QC. Gillard was appointed as a special investigator and spent three months uncovering incidents involving Eagles players and administrators dating back to the late 1990s before presenting his explosive findings to the league in February 2008. His secret 87-page report was one of the most closely guarded documents in football history, with just three hard copies ever produced.
Gillard’s discoveries were shocking.
An internal Eagles investigation had found the earliest drug-related incident involved three senior players on a football trip to Spain in 1998 “observed behaving in a highly stimulated fashion despite not drinking alcohol”. Coaches at the club were warned by police as early as 2001 about players dabbling in drugs. Eagles bosses also knew of a prescription form stolen from a club doctor used by a star midfielder to buy fifty Valium pills — to help teammates “prolong a high”.
And Gillard got to the bottom of Rule’s big scoop about Chad Fletcher flatlining in Las Vegas.
Fletcher was in Vegas with eighteen teammates and five club officials who had extended their premiership celebrations with a trip to Sin City. On the final night of festivities, Fletcher collapsed outside the MGM Grand Casino and showed no sign of a pulse. He was revived by a club staffer before being rushed to hospital.
When the news broke at home, club bosses insisted Fletcher’s illness was “alcohol induced” or an allergic reaction from a yellow fever vaccination. “We vehemently deny any drugs were involved,” Eagles president Dalton Gooding flatly declared.
But Gillard concluded that illicit drugs were indeed the cause of Fletcher’s brush with death in the Nevada desert.
Gillard’s report fully detailed Fletcher’s denial. “Fletcher … told me that he did not know what caused his problem. He was very ill and he recognised that he had had ‘a very moving and very life-changing event’.”
Gillard’s report outlined statements from other sources involved that helped inform his findings. “Evidence was placed before me that a few days before the incident Fletcher was openly displaying in a bar a photograph on a digital camera screen which appeared to show a supply of a substance that looked like the drug ice … he was observed to be highly stimulated …
“I gave Fletcher the opportunity to comment on this evidence and he denied that it had occurred. I do not believe him. I have no reason to disbelieve the source of the information.”
Gillard was scathing in his assessment of both the club’s handling of the issue at the time and the evidence of its players and officials. “This whole episode reflects upon the club,” Gillard said. “It exemplifies the attitude which had persisted for some five years previously, and that was to ignore any suggestion of drug-taking. The official line was there was no evidence of drug-taking. But the circumstantial evidence cannot be ignored.”
A spree of other undisclosed incidents, including a car crash and lies to police about who was behind the wheel, were also uncovered. But on-field success and commercial riches led the club’s senior management to ignore it all.
“The culture developed over a number of years and could be traced back to about the year 2000,” Gillard said in his report obtained by the Herald Sun in 2017. “It was based on success, arrogance, a belief that what the players did in their own time was their own business, and a failure by the club to properly punish players in a way that acted as a deterrent.”
Michael Warner’s book The Boys’ Club is on sale now.Source:Supplied
Eagles chief executive Trevor Nisbett, who kept his job and continued in his role for years, and coach John Worsfold were condemned for allowing a toxic off-field culture to “fester”.
Of Worsfold, who coached the club’s 2006 premiership side, Gillard said: “Coach Worsfold was told by at least three fairly reliable sources in 2002 that some players were taking illicit drugs and were mixing with undesirable persons and could get themselves into trouble. Two names were mentioned … (including Cousins). They were spoken to by the coach, and the players responded that there was nothing to worry about.”
Only after the Eagles were knocked out of the 2007 finals did the coach read the riot act to his players about illicit drugs. “After West Coast Eagles were defeated by Collingwood in the finals series in September 2007, coach Worsfold addressed the players and after congratulating them and thanking them for their efforts in what was a very close-fought semi-final, proceeded to severely criticise a number of players, who he named, as derailing the team’s efforts for season 2007,” Gillard said. “It was clear that the coach was extremely disappointed and angry that the season had not ended on a winning note, and in particular talked about the taking of drugs and stated in a belligerent manner that ‘he would rather die than take a drug’.”
Gillard’s scathing report had laid bare a toxic drug-fuelled crisis and yet no charges were ever laid by the AFL against the West Coast Eagles or the club’s management.
Frantic correspondence between the AFL and Eagles bosses exposed the league’s extreme paranoia that the Gillard report would be leaked.
With good reason it turned out.
Quizzed by 3AW’s Neil Mitchell over the emergence of Gillard’s findings in March 2017, McLachlan claimed Gillard had cleared West Coast of “conduct unbecoming”. “The recommendation of the Gillard report to the commission was there was not enough evidence to charge the club with conduct unbecoming,” McLachlan said. “That was the conclusion and the recommendation by the independent judge.
“His brief was to write an independent report. He did that and his recommendation to the commission — under the rules at the time the one thing they could have been charged with was conduct unbecoming — and his recommendation was there was not enough evidence.”
What McLachlan failed to tell Mitchell and his listeners was that Gillard’s explicit directive under the terms of reference for his probe was to only consider incidents that took place post April 2007 when determining if the club should be punished.
In effect, Gillard had been restricted by the AFL Commission and could only recommend charges for indiscretions that took place at West Coast long after the worst of the drugs storm had passed.
Everything that took place before that was off limits — and Gillard’s report was unequivocal in concluding that the club’s management had “covered up” years of blatant illicit drug abuse and allowed a rotten off-field culture to fester before 2007.
That West Coast was never punished for governance failings or for bringing the game into disrepute defied logic.
This is an edited extract from The Boys’ Club by Michael Warner (Hachette Australia, $33), available now
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