Case for the defence: don't hang Clarkson
I'VE SEEN some long bows drawn in my time. But few longer than when various media outlets chased down former Carlton defender Ian Aitken for comment on Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson's poor behaviour in a junior football match last Sunday.
Clarkson, you might have worked out, is this week's public enemy No.1. Last weekend, while coaching the Hawks, he became so agitated he managed to put his hand through a plaster wall in the coaches' box. The next day, while acting as a runner for his son's under-nine team, he told a 19-year-old umpires' coach to "f... off" after being ordered off the ground.
Clarkson hadn't intervened in a fight, or indulged in gamesmanship. He'd run on to stop both teams kicking to the same end, telling his son's team's forwards to play as defenders instead. In the confusion, though, someone else told the players to swap ends. When the game restarted, there was a mass of players at one end, none at the other, a fair impediment to a decent game of footy.
Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson has been pilloried for swearing at a 19-year-old umpire during his son's under-nine football match. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
So Clarkson, having only filled the role in an emergency and unaware of the protocols, stayed marginally inside the boundary line, attempting to fix the mess. With an official bellowing at him to get off, and chaos still ensuing, he let fly. He continues to pay a pretty hefty price for doing so, not only in the court of public opinion, but at the hands of a cavalry of media moralists climbing on the high horse again.
Let's make it clear. Of course, Clarkson did the wrong thing, for which he'll be fronting a local tribunal, where he will apologise, by my count, for a third time. There will be some sort of official sanction. And, obviously, plenty of embarrassment. Isn't that enough?
Apparently not. We have to drag down and dust off the tasty footage of Clarkson the North Melbourne player belting Aitken from behind in an end-of-season exhibition game in London in 1987, and have the former Blue respond yet again.
What, exactly, does the mob want? A fourth or fifth apology. A tearful recantation. A set of stocks and some rotten tomatoes? OK, he stuffed up, but is there any chance of a little perspective?
The Aitken incident was 25 years ago. And the relevance to today? Beats me. That game, for which Clarkson has regularly expressed shame, involved physical violence towards an opponent as a player. Last weekend, as a coach, we saw frustration unleashed at a wall. And the day after, as a volunteer, a hot-headed verbal volley that contained an expletive.
But it makes a lovely juxtaposition for a tight TV news package. And three incidents crammed into 90-odd seconds without context, allowance for the different circumstances in each, and the fact that they've spanned a quarter-of-a-century makes a far more compelling case for the argument that the coach has anger management issues.
Does he really? What's the toll in 25 years' involvement of league football? There's Aitken. There's a confrontation with a journalist following a press conference five years ago, one far tamer than at least a half-dozen from other coaches to which I've been privy in which journalists were either ridiculed at length or in a couple of cases, manhandled.
There's the one three years ago when he gave Essendon's Matthew Lloyd a serve after the game for his controversial bump on the Hawks' Brad Sewell. And there's last weekend. Over a quarter-of-a-century, I would have thought they were dots you'd have to draw a rather long line to connect.
As for character, well, Clarkson, a passionate man, can steam after a loss with the best of them. But he still attends to his media duties. He addresses questions as directly as possible, and honestly. That puts him ahead of quite a few predecessors some of us older media types have dealt with.
If the tub-thumpers were interested in a more nuanced discussion about Clarkson's character, they could also talk about his involvement in the "Wingman" program, promoting safe drinking, his involvement stemming from having lost an older brother to drink-driving.
Or his heartfelt public regret about his ignorance of former Hawk Travis Tuck's depression and illicit drug-taking, and how differently he may have handled the player if he had known of his condition. Or, for that matter, his role four years ago in helping secure the necessary funding for a friend suffering acute leukaemia to receive specialist treatment and surgery in the US.
None of which excuses Clarkson for causing a little more work for the MCG house repairs team, or for setting a bad example for some kids last weekend. He's not making any, either.
And I reckon he's emerged from the past couple of days with more honour than some of those baying for blood. And deserved a lot better than to have ghosts of an act irrelevant to the latest kerfuffle and two-and-a-half decades old paraded publicly once more just to rub his nose in it one more time.