(Reuters) - The mysterious death of a young footballer outside a Las Vegas casino has cast a shadow over the Australian Football League finals series and prompted soul-searching among clubs about their responsibilities for players.
The body of John McCarthy, a 22-year-old midfielder for Port Adelaide Power, was found on the driveway of the Flamingo hotel early on Sunday morning.
McCarthy had become separated from a group of team mates partying in the Nevadan gambling mecca, a popular holiday destination for Australian Rules players keen to let their hair down after a bruising season of the indigenous football code.
The player called his girlfriend and sounded distressed and disorientated after losing his companions, and spoke of heading to the airport to get a flight home, a Port club spokesman confirmed in Adelaide on Tuesday.
Hours after the call, he was pronounced dead in a medical trauma unit, having fallen nine meters from a roof of the Flamingo casino.
Las Vegas police said they had no reason to believe his death was suspicious but its cause may not become clearer for up to two months, pending the results of an autopsy and toxicology reports.
McCarthy had grafted for years on the fringes of the game's top-flight competition but enjoyed a breakout season since crossing to Port Adelaide, playing 21 out of a possible 22 games.
His death has rocked the AFL community and sparked an outpouring of grief in Australia's southern states where fans embrace the game with religious fervor.
"It does put things in perspective," said Mick Malthouse, a former coach of McCarthy's at Port's Melbourne rivals Collingwood, where the player struggled to break into the first team.
"It's one of those moments where you come to realize being an AFL footballer doesn't give you an immunity to tragedy," he told reporters on Tuesday.
"A lot of boys would like to think they wear a Superman suit around but unfortunately that's not the case and it brings things back to reality."
Post-season "footy trips" are a rite of passage for young Australian Rules players, from boozy weekends on the beach for humble grass-roots teams to the often meticulously organized overseas holidays enjoyed by large groups of the playing elite.
The conduct of groups of alcohol-fuelled team mates on post-season binges has drawn negative headlines in years past, with reports of arrests, sexual assault complaints and collapses in public.
Las Vegas has previously proved a troubled partying venue for AFL players, with a former team captain spending a night in police custody after a violent altercation in 2004 and a player from another team spending days in hospital after an alcohol-induced collapse two years later.
Media pundits have previously slammed clubs for not taking sufficient care for their players and McCarthy's death has re-opened the debate.
"Too many AFL footballers find themselves in dangerous situations during end-of-season trips," respected football writer Caroline Wilson wrote in The Age newspaper's online edition on Tuesday.
"Given the blurred details of what happened to this well-regarded young player it is impossible yet to draw any conclusions except that it seems what took place could have been prevented."
The nature of players' individual responsibilities versus their employers' obligations remains a sensitive topic.
An AFL spokesman declined to comment on the relationship while the Players Association was not able to provide immediate comment when contacted by Reuters on Tuesday.
A Port Adelaide club spokesman said the Las Vegas trip was organized and paid for by the players themselves.
"With that particular group of players, we've never had any reason to worry about them until now," he told Reuters.
"They were grown men and private citizens enjoying what is a very small window of opportunity to take a holiday.
"We know where the players are (on off-season trips) and we keep accurate tabs on them day to day," he added, saying it was too early to discuss whether the team would review its policies.
"Our players are aware of the need to behave appropriately at all times."
Other AFL players have taken the initiative in trying to guarantee their own safety on overseas trips.
A group of players from the Melbourne-based Western Bulldogs team were also holidaying in Las Vegas at the same time as McCarthy's Port group, but funded a policeman to accompany them to act as a chaperone, the Herald Sun newspaper said on its website on Tuesday.
Players from another AFL club, Essendon, had called off a planned trip to Las Vegas in the wake of McCarthy's death, the club's coach James Hird told Melbourne radio station SEN.
Hird likened the club-player relationship to parents worried about their children.
"You have to give them some sort of amount of freedom and trust that they'll do the right thing," said Hird, 39, a former Essendon utility regarded as one of the finest players of the modern era.
"We can't stop them from going on a trip. We normally send a doctor and chief chaperone with them, not that we sanction the trip but just to make sure that if anything goes wrong we've got our people over there to help them out.
"Yesterday's tragedy just shows how careful young men probably need to be."
(Editing by John O'Brien)