Testing time for the AFL on drug loophole
One of the most telling moments in the super-hyped Lance Armstrong confession was when he came clean about his vehement assertion that he was the most tested athlete in cycling history - so how could he be guilty?
It had been his war cry against all the non-believers; but in his tell-all with Oprah Winfrey, he scoffed at the cycling authorities’ hopelessly inadequate testing regimen.
He was never, he claimed, tested out of competition, almost never randomly, and almost always on the day of competition.
So he and his posse had no trouble staying several steps ahead of cycling’s hapless authorities.
I wonder how many of our footballers are treating the AFL’s testing with similar contempt?
As the AFL Commission and 18 clubs meet in a unique drugs summit today, to address what many in the industry believe to be significant and growing illicit drug use, one thing is clear: the current system has run its course.
AFL chief Andrew Demetriou’s carefully orchestrated acknowledgment last week that we should expect more positive tests this year was the first step towards strategically repositioning the AFL.
Until Collingwood CEO Gary Pert’s impassioned plea about “volcanic behaviour” among some of the playing group, the sport’s governing body had seemed determined to keep its head firmly buried in the sand.
Proof positive is the flouting of the self-reporting loophole, which will no doubt be tightened after today. It was allegedly several Collingwood players who were among those guilty of exploiting that loophole.
By fronting up and admitting drugs use, players can avoid a strike against their names—and then brazenly continue to offend.
The Australian Drug Foundation has been a partner in developing what the AFL has always argued is a world-leading policy, the primary concern of which is the players’ health and welfare.
The Foundation’s John Rogerson is adamant that naming and shaming players is not the path ahead.
“World’s best research is clear that working with the players through education, treatment and counselling will have the best outcome,” he says.
He can, though, point to a shift in drug use - from cannabis and ecstasy to a significant increase in use of methamphetamines, amphetamines and cocaine - since the code was established.
“But viewing drug usage among footballers as isolated from the rest of the community is a mistake,” says Rogerson.
Battling risk-taking behaviour is part and parcel of any club’s responsibility in managing young players.
By their very nature they push the boundaries to achieve sporting success and many are prone to do the same in other areas of their lives - and drugs are no exception.
Many of the clubs have been pushing for an end to the three strikes policy because it keeps them out of the loop.
Many are strong advocates of a zero tolerance approach that sends a strong message that no drug usage will be tolerated.
I would argue that a policy that hits the middle ground needs to be found and that facts are always a good guide.
While the current testing regimen has not yielded a raft of positive tests, using about 1500 tests a year to try to cover more than 750 elite players is simply not enough.
Ensuring the policy is not a soft touch for players is critical and the turbulent off-season seems a good place to start homing in on likely offenders.
So, while the three strikes seems set to remain a cornerstone of the AFL’s approach, giving up ground on more assertive testing in the holiday period is essential.
Even if both the AFL and Players Association hold firm on three strikes, bringing club officials into the process earlier will help clubs identify problem behaviour that may be broader than one individual. And there’s no compelling argument to suggest that this would interfere with any continuing treatment and counselling.
Drug and alcohol specialists point to alcohol as the biggest driver of riskier experimentation. The AFL’s figures back that up: Demetriou acknowledges that 96 per cent of players who tested positive for drugs last year were drinking at the time.
Add to that the spread and availability of drugs within the past 12 months.
Risky behaviour by football players while they are out in nightclubs and bars around Melbourne is nothing new.
But AFL medical director Peter Harcourt argues that a range of drugs is now readily available just about everywhere and the problem is certainly not isolated to Melbourne’s nightlife.
The Players Association’s Ian Prendergast insists that a delicate balance has to be maintained between the players’ health interests and the need to catch those who are deliberately and recklessly breaking the rules.
Agreed - but let’s not protect those arrogant few who are sullying the image of the broader group and, by implication, the game.
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