Do we need to know if AFL players are taking drugs?

Date: October 30, 2015 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Illicit drugsI have never drunk, smoked or used illicit drugs and when it comes to the latter I abhor the practice. So what follows is by no means supportive of young sportspeople using drugs.

However, I do have issues with the AFL illicit drug testing policy.

It is not necessarily the alterations to the way penalties will be meted out that I question but the concept in its entirety.

My principal issue is this – why do we need to know what is in a player’s system outside of match days when it comes to illicit drugs? Indeed, should they even be tested for illicit drugs?

Well, on game day yes they should, for numerous illicit drugs – the likes of cocaine and amphetamines – are classified as stimulants and are banned in competition by the WADA Code.

The presence of such substances in a match day doping test will lead to a sporting ban as Wendell Sailor learned when he received a two-year suspension for returning a positive for cocaine whilst playing for the NSW Waratahs in 2006.

In the case of stimulants in your system on match days you are deemed to be cheating and as such suffer the appropriate penalties in line with the WADA Code.

However WADA has no interest in such substances in an athlete’s system on non-competition days. But the AFL does.

Why though should their players be subjected to such testing on non-competition days?

Nowadays there are a growing number of corporate organizations who test for illicit drug use.

In the vast majority of cases such testing regimes are related to safety issues within the workplace – miners who are operating potentially dangerous equipment; pilots who are flying a plane with several hundred passengers on-board; or police who are handling firearms to name a few.

Most would not argue with that philosophy as those engaged in such areas of employment whilst under the influence of drugs could lead to dire and deadly circumstances.

But in non-AFL workplaces those individuals are not likely to be tested on days when they are not at work.

FIFO workers who work an eight and six roster for example know they can be randomly tested before starting their shift on their eight days on site while on their six days off they also know testing will never occur. The same goes for pilots, police officers and almost every other form of employment.

An elite sportsperson can be tested pretty much anytime when not “at work” on a match day. In the case of an AFL player the knock on the door can come anytime. And, if they have an illicit drug in their system, they will have a first strike recorded against their name.

It is prudent to test those who work in areas of risk like mine sites before they go in shift and handle dangerous equipment but how would we feel about a mine worker who is tucked up in bed on a night off thousands of kilometres from his workplace being woken up and tested for illicit drugs.

When he gets back to work and is about to get behind the wheel of a dump truck that carries 250 tonnes of iron ore perhaps it is fair enough but should it matter when he is off site for six days and back home?

Should he be open to that level of scrutiny and intrusion? I think we would all answer “no”.

Yet, it seems the majority feel it is fine for an AFL footballer to have to go through it at any time.

“It’s because they are role models”, I hear you say. Yes, perhaps they are but does that mean we need to know?

We only know that they are doing something outside the law – which is what illicit drug use is – as a result of being randomly tested. In other words we only know of their misdemeanours because they are tested. Otherwise they are looked upon like everyone else.

I struggle with the concept that it should only be elite sportspeople that should be tested for illicit drugs when they are away from the workplace.

And, in the case of the AFL, it is one of a very small number of sports that carries out tests for illicit drugs on non-competition days. That again raises another interesting double standard.

If you are an AFL footballer, and as such deemed a ‘role model’, if you are using illicit drugs out of competition you have a probability of being caught and of you do it twice you will be named publicly.

Yet, if you are at the elite level in the majority of other sports, what you have in your system away from competition is of no interest at all to your governing body. In fact, they do not even want to know. But if you are an AFL footballer it is a matter of anytime, anywhere.

The whole ‘role model’ debate is in itself a curious one. When it comes to violence in sport we would all agree that it is not a good look. That being the case why is there the need to replay vicious and unsavoury acts ad nauseum when they occur? Surely that is doing little to enhance the ‘role model’ concept.

When it comes to role models they come in a lot more forms than merely sportsmen and women.

I have a ten-year-old son. At the top of the tree when it comes to role models is me and my wife. After that, the person he is most exposed to in a week is his primary school teacher who has an enormous responsibility in shaping the development of my son.

Teachers are huge role models, especially when it comes to primary school age children. Having said that, should they be randomly drug tested on Monday mornings to ensure they did not use illicit drugs on the weekend?

Or perhaps we should go a step further – should they be expected to receive a knock on the door at 10pm on a Saturday night and be drug tested because, to the kids in their class and for me as a parent, they are a ‘role model’?

I think we would all say no but if you are an AFL footballer most seem to think it is a good thing.

I have to admit that I am unsure if all employees of the AFL – secretaries, operations personnel and the executive – are open to random drug testing. If they expect the players to face such practices perhaps they should.

It is certainly what happens in many mining companies where both on-site and off-site workers of all levels are randomly tested – at work only though.

If an AFL employee other than a player was to return a positive test to an illicit substance they would likely be counselled and supported and not immediately dismissed if it had not directly and adversely affected their work.

The same would occur for a player – he would be counselled by the club doctor who would no doubt direct him to appropriate support.

However, if he tested positive again his name would be splashed in the media. Would the same happen with an AFL office employee? No! We would never hear about it.

And let’s hope if the AFL admin staff is being tested for illicit drug use they are also subjected to knocks on the door at 10pm any night of the week.

As they say, what’s good for the goose …

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 29 October 2015, soliciting 67 comments