Legendary AFL player Eddie Betts has revealed harrowing experiences at the Adelaide Crows, after a boot camp where players were mock-kidnapped, abused and traumatised. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Eddie Betts and the shameful legacy of the Crows’ camp
It was mid-2017, and the Adelaide Crows had just engaged an outside consultancy firm that specialised in “high-performance leadership”. Their star forward, Eddie Betts, was immediately sceptical. Leadership could not be imposed or refined from outside, he thought, and he had no faith in programs that applied a one-size-fits-all approach to “a bunch of players from completely different backgrounds, experiences and environments”. Plus, these blokes seemed to speak in endless streams of corporate jargon.
The idea, the consultancy firm said, was to improve the players’ resilience, develop their “warrior mentality”, and to help the team better project some kind of intimidating aura. For Betts, the way they went about this ranged from the ridiculous to the shameful. Ridiculous was being coached on the correct facial expressions to wear while running through the team banner. Shameful was being asked to sit in a circle, grab your dick, and scream profane, uninhibited abuse at your teammates. “I didn’t feel safe thrusting myself and shouting ‘Fuck you!’ at a bunch of young kids,” Betts writes. “I wanted to do the opposite and protect them.”
Of these interventions, players were variously committed, bemused and contemptuous. Betts held his tongue, but checked on his Indigenous teammates. He didn’t think these leadership gurus were capable of cultural sensitivity. Betts is not sceptical of psychology. In fact, in his new memoir – the one that contains the revelations that have sustained this week’s news – he praises the quality of the AFL’s sports psychologists, and speaks of the benefits of his own therapy. But, he stresses, that therapy was evidence-based, personalised and private.
Back in 2017, Adelaide were still winning. Dominant, even. They finished the regular season as minor premiers and qualified for the grand final – their first in almost 20 years – after two comfortable finals wins. But if one were to nominate a turning point in this tawdry tale – a point at which afterwards nothing would ever be the same – the grand final might be it.
Adelaide played Richmond, and were favourites to win. “I can’t speak for everyone, but to me it seemed like the overriding feeling on that bus [to the MCG] was one of excitement, not nerves,” Betts writes in his memoir, The Boy from Boomerang Crescent. “We’d beaten Richmond by plenty when we’d played them earlier in the season, so we were pretty confident.” It didn’t last. At half-time, the Crows trailed by nine points – a relatively trivial margin, but one that Betts secretly felt was flattering. “It genuinely felt to me like we had already lost the game,” Betts writes. “When we went into the rooms, we were flat.”
Richmond dominated the second half, winning the game by 48 points and beginning a dynasty. The dejected Crows returned to Adelaide and sheepishly met their fans at Adelaide Oval. Betts felt they’d let them down. Hell, he felt they’d let themselves down.
But things would get worse. Much worse. That afternoon, while the players were promising their fans that they’d return “bigger and better” next season, they had no idea that their sad and dramatic unravelling was imminent.
Adelaide’s loss of the 2017 grand final only intensified the club’s engagement with the consultancy group. The players, it was said, lacked “resilience”. This became a buzzword – and a supposed mental flaw that required a bizarre and dramatic intervention. It was also an absurdly insulting thing to say of a group of men who had just finished as minor premiers and runners-up only two years after their coach, Phil Walsh, was fatally stabbed.
And so, in early 2018, the players were sent on a pre-season boot camp run by the outside group. Betts was apprehensive, and he wasn’t alone. They were flown to the Gold Coast and bussed to a hotel. Betts writes that players were ordered to the underground carpark, where they were confronted by a man in Richmond colours who screamed abuse at them. Then blokes in military fatigues with fake machineguns appeared. Strange, but lame. Betts and others thought this the weird prelude to a camp of punishing dawn push-ups – gruelling, but acceptable.
They were wrong. The players were ordered into a bus with blacked-out windows, then blindfolded. The players were not told where they were going, and were ordered not to speak. Thrash metal was played loudly, while strangers screamed personalised abuse at them about their performance in the grand final. This lasted for most of the ride. Betts writes that he thinks they went over the border into New South Wales, as his digital watch adjusted for daylight saving.
What Betts describes next – and former teammates have since corroborated – was not so much a boot camp as a sinister hazing ritual. Players were told to surrender their phones, which upset those with young families. Betts’ wife was then heavily pregnant with twins, and he writes that he had to forcefully negotiate a small window during which to call them.
Crucially, before the camp began, Betts writes that he was encouraged to volunteer very personal and upsetting information about his childhood to supposed counsellors.
“I was too trusting with the information I provided and I really regret giving it to them now,” he writes.
In a long and wrenching statement this week, his teammate Josh Jenkins told the same story – he confided exquisitely personal information that he believed would remain confidential.
What these players say were privately and reluctantly shared details were then weaponised against them. In what’s become known as the “harness ritual”, players were strapped into a harness with a long rope attached, and asked to fight their way through mud towards a knife to cut themselves free.
Betts describes his turn: “I was told it would get rid of my ‘childish boy’ and I would become a man,” he writes. “At one point I thought I was getting close to the knife but they dragged me 30 metres back over the gravel and mud. When I got close again, they instructed two of my biggest teammates to jump on me and push me onto the ground and not let me move, while the camp-dudes continued to yell abuse to me.
“I heard things yelled at me that I had disclosed to the camp’s counsellors about my upbringing. All the people present heard these things. By the time I got my teammates off my back, I was exhausted, drained and distressed about the details being shared. Another camp-dude jumped on top of me and started to berate me about my mother, something so deeply personal that I was absolutely shattered to hear it come out of his mouth.”
Jenkins, who is painfully estranged from his parents, has described precisely the same exploitation of his childhood.
At the time, the tall forward described the camp to Betts as a “fucking cult”.
Betts writes that Aboriginal culture was crudely appropriated, and that his abuse provoked from him a rare and personally shameful violence – he elbowed a man in the head after being pinned to the ground and told he would be a “shit father” because he had only been raised by a mother.
The players were ordered to secrecy, and given lines to rehearse that they were to use later when describing the camp to their families – or the media. After the camp, Betts experienced nightmares, anxiety, irritability and paranoia.
Those players, like Betts and Jenkins, who later raised objections within the club say they were shrugged off – or worse.
Betts was dumped from the Crows’ leadership group, and when leaks about the camp started appearing in the media, the club fractured further.
Betts said he was suspected of leaking, which only added to his anxiety and paranoia.
The team that had survived the brutal death of its coach two years before, that was close, skilful and a contender for the 2018 flag, now began disintegrating. Cliques formed and morale fell. Players requested trades; many left. Eventually, so did most of the club’s executive. This week, ex-Crow Bryce Gibbs said it “ended careers”. The club has never recovered.
SafeWork SA concluded an inquiry into the camp last year, and found that no work, health or safety laws were broken – but it has not released the report or explained the inquiry’s parameters. The AFL Players’ Association also investigated and found nothing – though they now say that they weren’t aware of all the details. Betts disputes this.
After years of legal threats from the consultancy group, and years of arrogant and obscuring dismissiveness from the Crows and the AFL, this week the apologies came – most of them defensive, vague and offensively qualified.
But for all of the insulting dissembling, perhaps the worst comments came from Mark Ricciuto – a Crows legend, the club’s football director and the only senior backroom staff member employed in 2017-2018 who is still there today.
With remarkable callousness, Ricciuto said: “We all love Eddie and hopefully Eddie’s getting over that. That was four years ago, certainly the club’s moved on from that and looking towards the future and made a lot of ground since back then.”
For now, Ricciuto defiantly remains. But so too does the threat of a class action from former players.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 13, 2022 as "A boot stamping".
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