AFL season ending on a sad note

It’s been an exciting AFL competition in 2012, but it’s ending with sadness after the death of Port Adelaide’s John McCarthy in Las Vegas in a tragic accident, with the conjecture that it was partly the result of a night on the booze with his teammates.

Yet his mates from Port Adelaide did not abandon McCarthy, as first imagined. He had called his girlfriend, Dani Smarrelli, and said he missed her but he was okay, and she in turn rang one of the players, who called McCarthy. He was okay, McCarthy said, and suggested he was on his way back to their hotel to join them. It was early morning Las Vegas time.

Then for some reason, McCarthy went to the wrong hotel, the Flamingo, where he caught a lift to the third floor. He got out, opened a door that should have been locked, climbed down a ladder and found himself trapped on a roof. He tried to jump onto a nearby palm tree, but, instead, fell to his death. A tragedy of errors.

Ashley Porter of The Age has pieced together how the group got separated. When the eleven players arrived in Las Vegas, their rooms were not ready, so not surprisingly, they went to a casino. And with thousands inside the huge gaming palace, they split into smaller groups, some stayed, but some went back to the hotel, tired after their long flight. Port Adelaide chief executive Keith Thomas said the players are now blaming themselves for not keeping the group together at the casino.

Port’s football operations manager, Peter Rhode, who was in Las Vegas to help arrange for McCarthy’s body to be brought back to Australia, said it was not unusual for players to wander off even though the clubs would “have liked them to stay together.” (

Porter writes: “For the most part, we know how John McCarthy died, but no one, especially his family and girlfriend, teammates and his countless other friends, will ever understand why.”

Peter Rhode said the merit of end-of-season trips is a matter for another time. It is a time to mourn, but you have to wonder if John McCarthy might still be alive if the Port players’ trip happened to be at the Crown Casino in Melbourne, rather than some glitzy casino in Las Vegas. One visit to Vegas is enough for many Americans, let alone Australians. Ironically, North Melbourne’s forward Matthew Campbell was thrown out of the Crown and later allegedly damaged a car belonging to a casino staff member this week. Players can get into trouble at home, but it doesn’t normally lead to loss of life or limb.

Of course, the players deserve a few days away at the end of a tough year, but there are plenty of places in Australia where you can have a good time without putting yourself in danger.

The wise and thoughtful Essendon coach, James Hird, said it was “always a worry” when players go on end-of-season trips. His players decided not to go to Vegas for a planned trip out of respect for the McCarthy family. He added: “I think it’s like bringing up your children. You have to give them some sort of amount of freedom and trust that they’ll do the right thing and … we can’t stop them from going on a trip.”


In Melbourne this week, Gary Ablett of the Gold Coast Suns won the AFL Players Association Most Valuable Player award. Caroline Wilson of The Age said it was a “heavy-hearted AFL community” that gathered for the presentation, and “it was another tough day for the Magpies, who play a semi-final on Saturday night and count six players among McCarthy’s closest friends.”(John McCarthy also played for Collingwood.)  In Port Adelaide, fans laid wreaths at Alberton and at Sorrento Oval on the Mornington Peninsula where McCarthy’s football career began, his uncle John Olle paid tribute to his nephew: “A life does not attract a response of such magnitude unless it is truly worthy as the life of Johnny was. He was a unique, precious and loved young man.”( McCarthy’s captain at Port Adelaide, Dom Cassisi, said: “John was a ripping bloke. I haven’t seen anyone come into our club and just fit in with the boys from day one … he has only been here for 12 months, but it just goes to show the impact and what sort of bloke he was.” (

I think it’s time all AFL clubs take the Sydney Swans family-like approach to looking after their players. When Nick Davis was not acting like a “team player” in 2006 – the year after he kicked four goals in the last quarter to beat Geelong and put the Swans on the way to their first Grand Final victory in 72 years – Paul Roos put him in the sin bin for six weeks. And the other Swans let him know he was in the wrong.

Nick Davis soon came around, and although his career ended with a dislocated knee in 2008, he’s now back as a runner with the Swans, and a coach at their new AFL Academy.

As a result of their family culture, the Swans seldom suffer the discipline problems of other clubs, and I can’t remember them having an untoward incident on an end-of-season trip.

None of this will bring back John McCarthy, but a more parental, tough-love approach might help prevent another tragic accident.

We live in hope. There are more important things in life than a premiership.

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