The AFL must not abandon the WADA Code

Date: January 15, 2016 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

AFL WADAIn the wake of the Essendon bans the AFL Players’ Association has called for the AFL to break away from WADA.

At this point, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan has said that is not on the commission’s radar.

The AFLPA has been vehement in its view that the ‘Essendon 34’ received an unjust result.

The Association’s CEO, Paul Marsh branded the outcome “the most disgraceful thing I have seen … in 20 years working in sport”.

“I don’t think the WADA Code is necessarily catching genuine cheats. I think it is catching people who are not cheats.”

An interesting interpretation by anyone’s measure.

The fact that the AFLPA believes the players have been shafted is without reservation.

No doubt much of that is predicated on the 180-degree turn between the AFL’s anti-doping tribunal outcome and the finding by CAS.

In the space of ten months innocence and exoneration turned to guilt and substantial bans.

For the players it would have hit like a sledgehammer.

Underlying anger that has simmered for over three years has turned to outright hostility towards the authorities that have branded the players as cheats.

But if the AFL was to bow to pressure from the AFLPA the ramifications for the code would be significant, and in several areas, would be detrimental to the sport.

The AFL was the last significant sporting body in the country to sign on to the WADA Code.

In the end – in July 2005 – the AFL agreed to fall into line with the other sports in Australia.

At the time that the AFL announced it would sign-up to WADA compliance the AFLPA expressed concerns:

“The AFL players association supports the objective of WADA to rid the sporting world of performance enhancing drugs. However the Players Association maintains some concerns with aspects of the WADA code which are shared by a number of independent legal, medical and health professionals and academics.

The Players Association hopes that some of these legitimate concerns can be addressed in amending the current doping policy.”

One of the sticking points from the AFLPA’s standpoint was the policy that WADA had on cannabis.

The AFLPA strongly believed that cannabis in a player’s system during competition should not be classified as a performance-enhancing substance whereas WADA had the power to ban an athlete for a period of up to two years.

To this day the WADA Code still classifies cannabinoids as match-day performance enhancers although in May 2013 it increased the allowable threshold in an athlete’s system before a violation would be triggered.

Away from match day the AFL, in concert with the AFLPA, had developed the heavily pilloried three-strikes policy for illicit drugs in an athletes system on non-competition days.

That policy has recently been amended to see the second strike being the trigger for public disclosure.

In the end one of the driving forces in the turnaround by the AFL with respect to compliance with the WADA Code was the fact that the Federal Government had threatened to withhold its annual $3m funding which was primarily directed to game development across the country.

Should the AFL decide to go it alone by breaking away from WADA such an imposition would doubtless be triggered again by the government.

Additionally, the AFL is heavily reliant on federal money for the development and upgrading of both competition grounds and club facilities.

In Western Australia alone, the AFL is a significant beneficiary of federal government money with around $100m being contributed to the construction of the new 60,000-seat stadium, while both West Coast and Fremantle are to receive $10m each for the construction of new club facilities.

In the case of West Coast, as recently as last weekend, the club stated that its proposed relocation away from Subiaco Oval to a new facility would be delayed due to a lack of finance.

Such comments underline how important government money is to the AFL.

A move to abandon WADA compliance could potentially have a massive financial effect on the sport.

Some have pointed to the fact that in the United States, both the NFL and MBL are not signatories to WADA.

In the main, stadia development in the US is underpinned by local municipalities that largely bankroll stadia development to ensure that high profile, privately-owned teams stay in their area, as much for prestige and profile status as anything else.

Given that the majority of football fans believe CAS’s penalties to be just a decision should the AFL withdraw compliance with the WADA Code it would doubtless be seen as a bad move for the sport.

Rather than having independent bodies overseeing and controlling the code’s anti-doping program it would become one that would be administered and run by the sport itself.

Such a move would doubtlessly be condemned by many for should a sport, with self-interest at the heart of all its decisions, be the sole arbiter with respect to doping within its ranks?

Yes, the NFL and MLB are not compliant with WADA.

Unfortunately both those competitions have had massive issues with performance enhancing drug use and much of it has not been picked up by the sports themselves.

The BALCO scandal a dozen years ago uncovered blatant doping within major league baseball.

At the time, MLB was the only major sport that did not have a policy with respect to steroids – a remarkable fact in the first decade of this century given the scandals of the preceding 50 years.

The USADA investigation into Lance Armstrong that brought about the downfall of one of the world’s most decorated sportspeople would not necessarily occur in either the NFL or MLB as being non-signatories to the WADA Code they are not breaking any rules as such other than those that the sport themselves impose.

The NFL, the richest football league in the world, has not signed up with WADA because it does not rely at all on government funding nor does it need it for game development as its players are all drawn from within the college system.

Hence, there is nothing to be gained by the NFL signing on to WADA.

As a result, the NFL’s anti-doping protocols are devised and implemented by the competition itself.

The sport’s sanctions when compared to those levied through the WADA Code are remarkably lenient.

A first offence for testing positive to a performance-enhancing drug carries a four-match suspension in the NFL while for those that are signatories to the WADA Code the ban is up to – and often – two years.

If you get as far as a third positive test in the NFL you can expect a one-year ban while a similar instance under the WADA Code would see the offender banned for life.

If the AFL was to choose to abandon its WADA compliance it could freely legislate bans in line with the NFL, or if it chose to, apply even softer penalties as it would have no sporting anti-doping body to answer to just as happens in the NFL and MLB.

Surely that is not what sport needs in this country.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 14 January 2016, soliciting 207 comments