After enduring charges of racism, drug use and match fixing, the Australian Football League (AFL) was forced to apologise today for a bizarre prank in which a dwarf entertainer was set alight during annual end-of-season festivities.
Blake Johnston, a professional entertainer with the company Dwarf My Party, was hired by the St Kilda AFL team for its celebration at a Melbourne pub. During the evening – traditionally an alcohol-fuelled occasion known as “Mad Monday” – one player, Clinton Jones, crept up behind Mr Johnston and set fire to his trousers and shirt, using a gas lighter.
The flames were quickly doused, and Mr Johnston received only minor injuries, but he felt “absolutely humiliated” and “very, very shaken”, according to a colleague. To make matters worse, the AFL’s chief executive, Andrew Demetriou, burst out laughing on national television when informed about the incident.
Mr Demetriou, who usually shows little patience towards errant players, subsequently apologised, saying he initially thought a fellow panellist on Channel Seven’s Talking Footy show – who told him about it on air – was having him on.
“I thought it was a joke… After I found out that it was true, it’s just reprehensible,” he said. “I was flabbergasted. That would have been one thing I could never have predicted that we would deal with.”
Several AFL teams have been embroiled in damaging scandals during the 2013 season, with the Melbourne side Essendon disqualified from competition and fined A$2m (£1.1m) – the largest penalty ever imposed – for the suspected use of banned supplements.
That affair followed an investigation into allegations that Melbourne Football Club deliberately lost matches in 2009 in order to secure an advantage – given to poorly performing teams – in signing new players during the annual draft. Although the club was formally cleared in February, its football manager and coach were suspended for their role in fielding players in unfamiliar positions.
Then there was the “King Kong” scandal in May, after a 13-year-old girl racially abused Adam Goodes, an Aboriginal player with the Sydney Swans, calling him an “ape” during a match against Collingwood.
Collingwood’s president, Eddie McGuire, apologised to Goodes – then, just days later, while presenting his regular radio show, he suggested that the footballer could help promote the new King Kong musical. The club stood by Mr McGuire, who was sent for “tolerance” counselling.
Now the Mad Monday incident – which is being investigated by police – has once again highlighted the ugly side of the sport. Mr Johnston – who also wrestles, under the name Mr Big – was reportedly targeted during horseplay with the lighter, which the players were using to set fire to each other’s shoelaces and fancy dress costumes.
His colleague, Arthur Serevetas, told Channel Nine television: “A player went behind my friend with one of those gas lighters that you light up a stove and basically lit him up. Part of his shirt and pants [trousers] caught on fire.”
Jones, who has been fined $3,000 by the AFL, apologised, saying he and his teammates “were engaged in end-of-season activities which in hindsight were quite childish” and he “made an error of judgement in including Mr Johnston in the activity”.
Mad Monday – observed by all the football codes – has created lurid headlines in recent years, with a rugby league player, Joel Monaghan, sacked by the Canberra Raiders in 2010 after being photographed simulating a sex act with a dog. In 2008, a soccer player, Andre Gumprecht, attended his team’s festivities dressed as Adolf Hitler.