Do we need to know if sportspeople are using illicit drugs?

Date: September 6, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

There has been speculation this week that a change of Federal government would see the Coalition revisit its 2007 position where it attempted to have the AFL and the AFL Players’ Association amend its three-strike policy on illicit drugs.

The rumour was soon put to bed by Liberal leader Tony Abbott who said the Coalition does not have “the slightest intention” of pressuring the AFL to make changes to its existing policy.

That is a far cry from the lead-in to the 2007 election when the Howard government’s sports minister George Brandis accused the AFL policy of undermining its public campaigns that were aimed at reducing the use of illicit drugs in society.

He went so far as to say that the AFL’s policy was “a soft on drugs approach”.

Interestingly, the AFL and AFLPA were the first in Australia to adopt out-of-competition testing for illicit drugs.

The WADA Anti-Doping Code does not call for out-of-competition testing for illicit substances however if an athlete tests positive for the likes of amphetamines or cocaine on a competition day they face a two-year ban as those substances fall under the category of stimulants within the code.

Hence, any Olympic athlete who is tested on a non-competition day is not screened for illicit drugs and neither are almost all other sportspeople in Australia.

The majority of comment surrounding the AFL illicit drugs policy has centred on the three-strike concept.

Many argued that it is too lenient.

The AFL’s response is that the policy was devised in concert with leading medical and drug prevention experts including the Australian Drug Foundation.

Regardless of the mechanisms of the policy it was a brave move by the AFLPA in 2005 to agree to its implementation as it was opening up its members to sanctions that would otherwise not have been confronted by any other athletes within the country at the time.

The NRL later instituted its own out-of-competition illicit drugs policy in mid-2007.

Few other sports within Australia have followed the same path.

The question remains, however, as to why in fact such policies need to be in place.

WADA’s Anti-Doping Code is all about preventing cheating in sport with athlete health and well-being a secondary consideration.

Out-of-competition testing under the WADA Code purely targets substances that will benefit athletic performance such as anabolic agents, EPO and the likes.

It is not in the business of scanning athletes’ samples on non-match days for illicit drugs.

So why is there a need for sports to invoke their own illicit drugs policy?

The answer is perhaps two-fold – it is a way of helping to ensure the health of the participants as well as falling under the oft-used role model example.

There is no denying that illicit drugs can have an extremely deleterious effect on one’s health and a step to reduce their use is a positive one.

However, the role model debate in this area is an intriguing one.

In the eight years since the AFL’s illicit drug policy was launched only one player has ever been named as a result of having three strikes alongside his name.

That player was Hawthorn’s Travis Tuck who was handed a 12-match suspension in September 2010.

Between 2005 and the end of 2012, the AFL conducted 10,020 tests for illicit drug use.

During that time there were 106 positive results (1.1 per cent) and not once did a player test positive three times – Tuck’s third strike came as a result of being found unconscious in a car in Melbourne with drug paraphernalia close by.

Since the policy’s inception 13 players have failed two drug tests.

The AFL has stated that target testing does take place on players who have previously returned a positive test.

Those that maintain the three-strike policy is too lax believe that players who return positive tests should be outed publicly far sooner.

Yet, given the fact that over 10,000 tests have not resulted in an individual player reaching three strikes it would indicate that the current program is proving effective.

There are some who believe the system should have zero tolerance.

They argue that any illicit drug use is unacceptable and any player who returns a positive test should be named and shamed and handed an immediate suspension.

That philosophy raises some interesting points.

The players have effectively volunteered to undergo testing for substances at times when the vast majority of elite athletes are never required to.

If people believe that AFL players should be named and shamed why is it that they are not calling for all sports to undertake out-of-competition illicit drug testing.

From the moment the AFL introduced its illicit drugs policy it copped flack for being too lenient while at the same time no other sport in the country was even undertaking or contemplating similar programs.

The only sporting body that was looking to do anything was being criticized while no other sport would touch it and to this day very few actually have.

Given the vast majority of sports have never opted for an out-of-competition illicit drugs program it seems extremely hypocritical to expect that the few that have make a public pronouncement immediately an athlete falls foul of the testing procedure.

As for the role model part of the illicit drugs in sport debate, what have we learned from the AFL’s example?

In essence, what we already knew – young men are taking illicit substances.

And to date, none of them have returned three positive tests despite targeted testing being carried out on those who have previously failed tests.

Aside from Travis Tuck, we have no proof as to who the other players are who have returned positive results.

That being the case, the role model argument largely falls flat as no youngster who idolises a player knows whether he is a drug user or not and neither do his parents.

People are often happy to poor scorn on sportspeople and the argument that their illicit drug use should be highlighted is an example of it.

What we have as a result of the AFL’s program is statistics and not names.

The fact that approximately one per cent of the 700-plus AFL players have used an illicit substance is hardly an earth shattering discovery given their age demographic.

Yet, for some reason, many see it as being a very important thing to name them publicly yet what good would it actually do?

Most areas of the workforce implement illicit drug testing for means of safety.

There is no safety consideration with respect to an AFL player’s employment if he returns a positive test to an illicit substance on a non-match day.

The AFL players, and since then the NRL, have volunteered for programs that the vast majority of the workforce is never expected to do, let alone most of the other sporting codes in the country.

When it comes to role models for children, outside the family perhaps the most influential are their school teachers, especially in their primary years as they principally have just the one.

Can you imagine the outcry from the teachers’ union if an education department said it was going to introduce random tests for illicit drug use?

It would no doubt be deemed an inappropriate invasion of privacy and not relevant to their employment.

But, if it’s a footballer, well that is another question altogether.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 5 September 2013