A matter of balance

A matter of balance

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A review of the AFL’s illicit drugs policy – a consultation process expected to take months rather than weeks – is likely to lead to incremental rather than radical change.

This news might disappoint those observers who want any overhaul to be underpinned by a zero tolerance approach, views based on a mixture of anecdotal evidence and real concern.

But for those who want the policy to move forward with the support and buy-in of the players, the cool-headed approach that AFL.com.au understands will prevail will be welcomed.

While everyone in football seems to have been asked for, or offered, opinions on the illicit drugs policy in the past week any decisions require clear thinking, because plenty of questions hang in the air, unanswered, or subject to answers based more on emotion than substance.

The number of strikes, the volume and method of testing, the closing of loopholes and the public availability of results will be the main issues debated immediately with players wedded to the medical model.

“We have to give credit to the playing group for agreeing to an illicit drugs policy. The majority of players that I’ve spoken to agree that it helps us take care of the health and welfare and reputations of individuals” – Mark Evans

The potential for improved education programs and ways clubs can meaningfully engage with the issue without confidentiality being breached should also be on the agenda.

St Kilda CEO Matt Finnis, a former head of the players’ association, welcomes the Saints being involved in any review but is clear about the need for a balanced debate.

“The policy needs to be driven by advice from drug and alcohol experts on what is best for the players, but it also needs to get the balance right of being a deterrent and also allowing the clubs to proactively support their players,” Finnis told AFL.com.au.

“That is a tough balancing act and any policy needs to be tested regularly to ensure it is meeting those standards – but I’m confident we have enough smart and well intentioned people involved in our game to get the balance right.”

The truth is an appetite for change exists.

It’s been two years since the most recent review took place, one that led to players only being allowed to self-report once during their career and increased hair testing off-season.

Once AFL CEO Gill McLachlan flagged he was open to discussion last Monday the response has been overwhelming.

Speak to those at the coalface and they are definitely more concerned now then they were a year ago.

Too many players, they say, are just not heeding the message.

Although the message is simple – players should not take drugs – some do, risking their health, their careers, and their reputation.

Some think they’re smart.

Some make poor decisions.

Some have issues that make them vulnerable to abusing drugs.

For some, such risk taking might prove very costly as the potential for illicit drugs to contain performance-enhancing substances is now very real, a truth that might hit home harder than a million education sessions.

AFL.com.au understands that the level of cocaine use remains the biggest worry, although more evidence is needed to understand the depth and breadth of the issue among players (It’s worth remembering that evidence is now available because the players voluntarily agreed to be bound by the code).

Most players, it must be said, on both anecdotal evidence and previous test results, are exposed to illicit drugs regularly when socialising and do a good job of enjoying themselves without indulging.

AFL football operations boss Mark Evans revealed on Melbourne radio station SEN on Tuesday night the world had changed.

“I’ve got no doubt that we are dealing with a different environment with the availability of drugs in the community, the attitude towards drugs, the type of drugs themselves, but also the potential that they might be mixed with other substances that are harmful or even performance enhancing,” Evans said.

The environment might be different but the reasons players voluntarily agreed to be tested for illicit drugs outside competition has not – to help players’ wellbeing, not ruin careers.

Having agreed to be tested voluntarily the players have been smashed from pillar to post by people with different agendas.

The AFL is also perceived by some to be soft on drugs.

“The policy needs to be driven by advice from drug and alcohol experts on what is best for the players, but it also needs to get the balance right of being a deterrent and also allowing the clubs to proactively support their players” – St Kilda CEO Matt Finnis

Rarely, however, is it said that AFL players were the first sporting group to introduce such a policy and remain the only competition to release the results publicly.

Some players must throw up their hands and wonder whether the benefits outweigh the ridicule or the hounds it released.

Sections of the media have chased the strikers.

Clubs have presented mixed messages asking for more information on their players, more testing to be done in season, with some clubs requesting hair testing outside the current policy at times.

Some have lampooned rather than explained the policy, now some CEOs and football managers want to know which players have tested positive twice, despite the turnover of CEOs and football managers being a regular part of football life.

Clubs legitimately say they bear the brunt of the fallout whenever a transgression takes place. You can’t argue with that.

They argue they could do more if they were trusted more.

That remains debatable, but is a legitimate point of view.

Some would say tension exists because the policy is neither here or there: a well-intentioned idea without enough teeth to be effective.

The players do need to take responsibility – a balance between rights and responsibilities is only fair.

Evans said as much on Tuesday.

“We have to give credit to the playing group for agreeing to an illicit drugs policy. The majority of players that I’ve spoken to agree that it helps us take care of the health and welfare and reputations of individuals,” he said.

“But we also have to be concerned about the reputation of the clubs and the League. I think we need to move with that.

“But we need to make sure the players come with us on that journey and we need feedback from the clubs as well.”

The policy will be tightened. The medical model will be retained.

Player wellbeing is what matters most.

May that always be the case.

This article was originally published on AFL.com.au and can be accessed here

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