AFL

First came the uncanny talent, then the veneration, then a series of outrages followed by a criminal conviction – then a resilient career in media. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The resurrection of Wayne Carey

Wayne Carey on commentary duty at an AFL match at the MCG last month.
Wayne Carey on commentary duty at an AFL match at the MCG last month.
Credit: AAP / James Ross

There are stories from the old days that we love. Stories we tell over and over. Stories about a sportsman’s excess, stories that become folklore. Stories at which we shake our heads in delighted astonishment, before we shake our heads again in despair that they cannot exist anymore – not in this arid moment of media managers, political correctness and puritanical scrutiny.

Stories about natural brilliance and larrikinism, one seemingly reinforcing the other. Stories about all-night benders, punctuated by a game-winning six-goal haul the next day. Stories about a time when men could be men, and boys could be boys. Stories that become fables for a lost, usually illusory, time. Stories that become laments for the sterilisation of sport, media, society generally. Stories that powerfully affect their audience, that ratify the belief in a benignly simple past and a corruptly complicated present.

Wayne Carey stories aren’t like that. It’s harder to wax nostalgic about him. Carey stories are sad, brutal and disturbing. The awful chaos of his life was not just that of the arrogant philanderer but also of a haunted, shallow and violent addict.

It’s an old question but one that doesn’t have a satisfactory answer. How was Carey, so soon after dual convictions for assaulting police, and an earlier conviction for indecent assault, so quickly publicly rehabilitated and returned to profitable media roles?

My intention isn’t the cancellation of the King – it’s to attempt an answer. Last year, his old North Melbourne premiership teammate Shannon Grant, who was convicted in 2018 of multiple counts of domestic violence, was installed as coach at the amateur Williamstown Football Club. The appointment lasted about 48 hours before public outrage obliged his dumping. “Women are fighting tooth and nail to not only change the culture but also to put their hats in the ring for roles within football clubs/sports media, etc. and yet men who have a history of violence seem able to stroll into the role,” Western Bulldogs player Hannah Scott, who retired this week, wrote on Instagram at the time.

Grant’s gone, yet Carey remains an AFL broadcaster with Seven, and is now in his eighth year as footy columnist for The Age. What exactly are the rules here? Are there any? Is Carey’s legendary stature his saving grace? Are his footy insights considered indispensable? Or is it that his sins were committed sufficiently long ago? What sympathy, if any, should be derived from contemplating his abusive childhood? Is it too cruel a punishment to deny Carey his media career? He can occasionally show a fluency with the buzzwords of atonement, but how sincere is it really? Again, what rules are at play here? Or, as there were in his playing days, are there separate rules for the man known as the King?

 

Carey’s sins are public lore, but I’m obliged to recount them here.

When bands of lunatic thugs began slaughtering each other in Melbourne’s gang wars, Carey was drinking with one side of them. Before Jason Moran – killer, standover man and drug trafficker – was shot dead in the van carrying his children in 2003, he was convicted of assaulting several strangers in a pub with a cue stick. Carey offered a character reference in court.

Years later, Carey was insisting they were just neighbours, and that he was simply being polite in offering his reference. But before his death, Jason Moran told his lawyer he got to know Carey in a nightclub the footballer enjoyed for its outlaw clientele. Allegedly the two became close after Carey had grabbed the breast of Moran’s girlfriend, prompting the drug baron to threaten to kill him. This became the pair’s perverse “meet-cute”. Moran’s mother would later say the two became close and that Carey often came over for dinner.

In 2008, Carey told Andrew Denton on Enough Rope he was ignorant of Moran’s past and reputation, had only ever known Moran as a neighbour, and was in fact ignorant of Moran’s conviction for which he was now offering a character reference.

Carey, of course, had grabbed a stranger’s breast before. In fact, he was convicted of it – back in 1996, when after a long day’s drinking he seized a passing woman and sneered: “Why don’t you get a bigger set of tits?”

His famous career at North Melbourne ended when his affair with his teammate’s wife was dramatically revealed in a toilet. More than half a decade later, in one of this country’s more famous televised interviews, he blamed the woman for having followed him into the bathroom. A brilliant and rugged player, here was one example of moral courage not following its physical example.

Carey’s retirement years were blighted – as they were for the women who knew him. Carey loved escaping to the United States, especially Vegas and Miami, where he drank, inhaled lines of cocaine and failed to contain his anarchic rage. In October 2007, Carey’s then partner, Kate Neilson, called Miami police to their apartment after complaining he had smashed a wine glass in her face. Police arrived, found a bloodied Neilson and woke a sleeping Carey. “When officers went and spoke to him, he immediately was belligerent, starting striking out at the officers, in fact, kicked one of the female officers in the face with his foot, elbowed another one in the side of the face,” Miami Police Department’s Lieutenant Bill Schwartz said. “They had to wrestle him down and handcuff him. When he was in the police car, he used his head as a battering ram and tried to smash a hole between the front compartment of the police car and the prisoner compartment.”

They restrained Carey with leather straps.

Carey was released on bail and allowed to return to Australia. Three months later, almost the same thing happened in Melbourne. Police were called to a domestic dispute at his home and he assaulted them. He was subdued with capsicum spray, handcuffed and taken to the local station. He was later convicted of assault – as he was in Florida later that year. Nine and 3AW sacked him.

These convictions were for assaulting police, and not his partner, who declined to press charges. But in February this year, when Carey joined the reality TV series SAS Australia, he submitted to a mock, dramatised “interrogation” with former British soldiers and spoke of his history of violence and his emotional manipulation and intimidation of women. Kate Neilson had made clear she didn’t want the story rehashed again on television. Carey ignored this injunction, believing their past might be spoken of on national television for reasons of “personal growth” and huge sums of money. And so, Carey reiterated his story that the “glassing” was in fact a harmless accident, that he had only angrily splashed wine on her face and that the glass itself never broke.

Neilson wasn’t having it. “The shatter of the glass was so loud that people on the table next to us yelled out,” she wrote in February. “Strangers were coming to my aid. But my partner was running away.”

Carey’s assertion that the glass had only “touched her lip” denies the evidence of photos, police testimony and the recollection of the victim herself, and might be placed beside his claims of ignorance about Jason Moran.

In the late ’90s, Wayne Carey was hanging with Moran at the races when a sympathetic copper told the footballer his infamous mate was under surveillance and maybe he should leave. But Carey didn’t care and stayed. It’s a small but revealing story: Carey was sufficiently powerful that police might corruptly reveal intelligence to him and he was sufficiently taken with his own sense of exceptionalism that he could ignore them.

If Carey is remembered for anything beyond the footy oval, it’s the destructive affair with his teammate’s wife, “my greatest regret”, Carey said this year. But that wasn’t the end. Neil Mitchell lamented on 3AW that Denton’s 2008 interview had too generously allowed Carey to present himself as “the victim of his own stupidity and drug abuse”.

“Perhaps he is a victim of all that, but there are more victims in this and worse victims than Wayne Carey, and they’re the victims of his arrogance and his bullying and his violence,” Mitchell said.

Those comments came at a time when it was assumed that Carey’s media career was cooked. It wasn’t. Just two years later, Triple M hired him. TV broadcasting duties followed, then The Age column in 2014. The nadir for his reputation, and a period of broad criticism of his character, may have been 2008, but the criticism had just about evaporated by the time he rejoined radio two years later. What had meaningfully changed in those two years, other than Carey’s re-employment? It was as if Triple M’s decision became a threshold moment, after which all criticism of him was suddenly off-limits.

It was often said of Carey that he thought himself invincible, and his remarkably resilient career may well confirm that.

I’m still unsure about who can be publicly redeemed, and who cannot.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "Resurrection of the ‘King’".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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