Australia's binge-drinking culture among elite athletes has come under fire, after rugby league's highest-profile player was charged with a sex attack after an alcohol-fueled party.
Star fullback Brett Stewart, of reigning National Rugby League (NRL) champions the Manly Sea Eagles, was charged late Tuesday with sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl.
AdvertisementIn the latest in a series of scandals involving athletes and drink, police allege Stewart left a club reception last Friday and met the teenager outside his apartment block, briefly making conversation before attacking her.
The allegation, which Stewart's lawyers have denied, does not go to court until April 7.
But the NRL has suspended him for four weeks for breaching the league's code of conduct on alcohol and fined Manly 100,000 dollars (65,000 US) for allowing excessive drinking at the party.
Experts say rugby league is not alone as most sports have faced problems with binge-drinking among athletes in recent years.
Even the normally-sedate world of swimming was embroiled in controversy last year when butterfly specialist Nick D'Arcy was kicked off the Beijing Olympic squad for assaulting another swimmer during a drinking session at a nightclub.
In cricket, the drinking culture is so entrenched that former batsman David Boon's feat of drinking 52 cans of beer on a flight from Australia to London is celebrated by fans almost as much as his on-field exploits.
Post-match bonding sessions are such a ritual among Australia's cricketers that when vice-captain Michael Clarke tried to cut one short this year, batman Simon Katich grabbed him by the throat and had to be restrained by team mates.
All-rounder Andrew Symonds was dropped this year after a string of alcohol-related incidents including turning up to training drunk and slurring his way through a radio interview in which he lambasted a rival player.
Paul Dillon, a drug and alcohol specialist who has worked with international athletes from a number of sports, said the sportsmen were reflecting a wider culture of binge-drinking in Australia.
But he said they were doing it in the public eye, with young athletes in a "pressure cooker" where they drank heavily as an outlet.
"They tend not to drink as much as the general population but when they do drink they do it in a big way and that's where they can go off the rails," Dillon told AFP.
He said sports administrators were trying to address the problem but often set a bad example themselves by drinking at functions and encouraging sponsorship from alcohol companies.
"What they're doing is picking young men very early, sometimes as young as 15, and putting them in a situation with older men who drink," he said.
"Then they give them lots of money and not enough to do with their time. In those circumstances some people do not cope."
He praised the tough action taken by NRL chief David Gallop, who was furious at the scandal surrounding Stewart, a player promoted as the face of the game in a 1.5-million-dollar (975,000 US) advertising campaign which has now been pulled.
"By any estimation there was an abuse of alcohol in the aftermath of a club function that has led in some parts to the game being placed under enormous pressure, Gallop said.
"The players and the clubs need to know that we are not going to accept that."
Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter FitzSimons, a former rugby union international, said the problem was particularly apparent in rugby league and the game needed to change outdated attitudes.
"Players must get it into their thick heads that the world has changed and just because you play professional football doesn't give you a get-out-of-jail-free card when you behave appallingly," he said.
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