The sporting fraternity right across the world has lived through shock after shock over the last few weeks. Especially in Australia, it has been a few horrendous weeks with the announcement of drugs and match-fixing in all major sporting codes. Even though not one shred of evidence has been presented to the public until now, that ghastly media conference with all the bigwigs in Australian sport sticks around like a bad odor.
No wonder when the shock announcement was made that the Canterbury Bulldogs have suspended Ben Barba indefinitely, the words that came to mind were drugs, steroids, performance enhancers... Who could blame us? We have been searching far and wide for an explanation for this young man's freakish talent on the football field. But the explanation was not even remotely as sinister as that.
Last night, while the who's who of Rugby League in Australia were celebrating the start of the 2013 season, Ben Barba was not there. He was supposed to be the poster child for the game this year but instead of being at the party, he was preparing to take steps to get his life back on track.
It is now clear that his suspension has nothing to do with anything like what ACADA was talking about a few weeks ago. It is problems in his personal life that led to his suspension.
What are these personal problems we keep hearing about?
Ben Barba is a young man who always knew to do one thing well: play rugby. He shot to fame and stardom over a very short time. He has the adoration of young and old and after scoring three tries in the NRL All Stars match, he was being heralded as the biggest indigenous name in NRL history. But unlike the royals who are groomed from a young age to be in the spotlight and young actors who seek out the spotlight, it was all too much for the young sportsman to handle. Drinking and gambling was his way of dealing with the sudden fame and it did not take long for these to start ruling his life.
His behavior became erratic and he became involved in one altercation after another. Ben and his older brother, Aaron, exchanged words with Josh Hannay on the street when they called Hannay a has-been.
Ben got involved with a Cronulla-based party group, the Epic Bender Crew (EBC) and Bulldogs officials have kept a close eye on that. Shortly before his suspension, pictures of a tattoo on his stomach with the initials EBC was posted to Twitter.
Over the last few weeks, he showed uncharacteristic behavior at training. This led to prop Tim Browne challenging the fullback about his attitude. Barba responded angrily, but there was never any physical altercation.
Gambling took such a grip on him that he started to argue with his ex-partner, Ainslie Currie, about money. She handled the money and made sure they would always have enough. He would call her on the phone, arguing about her not wanting to give him more money to gamble with. He also started to borrow cash from Bulldogs teammates while gambling on the TAB and poker machines. During last weekend's visit to Goulburn, he played poker machines on at least three separate occasions, including a long stint at The Exchange Hotel, where he and a few teammates started playing in the afternoon and did not stop until just three hours before running onto the field for his team's trial match against Canberra. Barba told a Bulldogs trainer he didn't wish to play beyond half-time. They decided enough was enough and it triggered Canterbury's decision to hold the crucial meeting the next morning.
In a previous article about the Bulldogs, we wrote about the Bulldogs' belief that their players must have a healthy family life and that it is not all just about the player on the field but being good citizens in general. They proved this in the way they helped Ainslee Currie deal with her partner's erratic behavior. Before the crisis meeting and his suspension, she kept the club informed about his declining behavior every day. There were genuine concerns from within the club about how he spoke to her and treated her. Even though it was not serious enough to become police matters, it raised concern about how far he would go. Currie made it clear that she has not been physically hurt but that it was a very personal situation involving the two of them and their children. They have now asked for privacy from the Bulldogs and the media.
There is no doubt that Ben Barba will be back to play his role in the NRL. But for now he is a troubled young man who needs time to work out his own demons. A medical team is helping him plot a plan of action to do so.
We wish him and his family well and hope to see him back on the football field soon.