HE’S become so big, Bailey Smith, so endearing to so many and so relatable to seemingly every Australian under the age of 25 that he almost certainly will emerge from what could have been a career-crushing moment with even bigger appeal to the masses.
Smith, as he has done on AFL venues in three-and-a-half seasons, read the play superbly well on Saturday, after photos and a video of him with drugs and engaging in drug use spread across the same social media platforms which had helped elevate him into the public profile stratosphere.
An apology which he constructed himself hit all the right notes. It owned the wrongdoing. It acknowledged “shame”. It included a commitment to be better. There was no ambiguity in acknowledging the wrongdoing, and it effectively sucked a large part of the oxygen source out of the social and mainstream media fire, which to that point had raged for several hours.
It was genuine. As a media strategy, it was perfection, so much so that Cotton On, the company which signed Smith up as 20-year-old (he only turned 21 in December last year) and whose recent billboard campaign had played a large part in his profile bursting through football-only demographics into public mainstream, immediately committed to maintaining its very lucrative dealings.
The photos and video were from late last year on the Gold Coast, after the Western Bulldogs’ Grand Final loss to Melbourne, when Smith was still 20. He has told people close to him that he had never indulged in drugs until this period, and hasn’t since. Whether that is true or not, those people believe him.
They know him best, they understand his character, they’re aware of his mental health vulnerabilities, which he openly and powerfully volunteered to AFL.com.au in a socially impactful interview on the eve of the 2021 season.
>> Watch that interview in the player below
The AFL’s integrity department will speak with Smith this week. It backs its own systems, predominantly through its Illicit Drugs Policy, to deal privately with players who take drugs. But whenever such behaviour reaches the public, it acts and sanctions the transgressor. Brad Crouch and Shane Mumford were suspended from matches when their involvement with drugs became public.
Smith is expecting to be suspended. There is precedent for a two-game ban. Given he is currently serving a two-match penalty for headbutting Zach Tuohy, he probably won’t be playing again until round 18.
I have had major reservations about the AFL’s IDP since its inception in 2005. To me, it has always been a code of conduct, and that calling it a drugs policy is actually misleading. I do understand why medical and welfare aspects of the program are prioritised over punishing drug use. But I have long had the view – due to many incidents of player behaviour around drugs, a lot which I have chosen not to make public – that some players have been “comforted” in knowing that their drug use will not be publicly punishable by the AFL. There has been only one player in the history of the IDP deemed to have reached the three-strike threshold, and that player’s third strike was not an AFL test breach, it was police detection.
Under that policy, which was meant to be thoroughly reviewed at the end of 2019 but which has ultimately been unchanged after COVID impacted on the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Smith will be given a “strike”. Even if he has two strikes to this point, and he probably has none, it would be highly unlikely in my eyes if he were to be “outed” under the actual IDP as a three-striker.
If Smith is to be taken at his apologetic words of Saturday, he won’t again touch an illicit drug. Obviously that is the hope. And if he is true to his word, the new layers to his extraordinary all-time huge, Tony Modra-like public profile will somehow push him even further into the stratosphere. People love superstars, and they love even more superstars who embrace second chances.
That is the major hope to emerge out of the weekend. That Smith commits to the change he promised.
Ben Cousins once had the world at his feet. So too Harley Bennell.