I would describe the AFL’s core business as running a fair competition, entertaining for fans. But it also plays other important roles that have a meaningful impact on thousands of employees in the industry, and the community as a whole. It has tackled many social issues over the past two decades. It has worked hard to reduce racism on the sporting field and in the community, for instance. The issue the AFL administration is grappling with at the minute is illicit drugs.
I’m not concerned whether the AFL changes its policy from three strikes to two, as it seems determined to do, or decides to lose the strike system entirely. What does concern me, however, is the lack of informed public discussion about illicit drug use in football. Everyone who comments seems intent on jumping to policy change before exploring what is actually occurring. I’m aware that the AFL is forming a working party to recommend a course of action. I hope the working party is not merely to sign off on decisions that have already been made.
‘The current data shows that illicit drug use among AFL players is less than half the rate in the same demographic in the community. Anecdotally, it isn’t causing as much damage to the wellbeing of players as gambling is.’
Before changing the policy there are some things we need to know. One is, just how big an issue drug use is. We need to be sure the size hasn’t been magnified by a couple of high-profile events. The current data shows that illicit drug use among AFL players is less than half the rate in the same demographic in the community. Anecdotally, it isn’t causing as much damage to the wellbeing of players as gambling is. Nonetheless, it is an issue that needs to taken seriously. So what are the questions that need to be asked?
To start with: Why are players taking drugs? What are the potential unintended consequences of an illicit drug policy change? If players avoid using recognised illicit drugs, but are still driven to take drugs, will they replace known drugs by mixing prescription drugs with alcohol, or trying synthetic or new street drugs, for which there is no current testing?
How do we class drug users in the AFL? Do we treat players who are experimenting with drugs in the same way as habitual drug users who are battling mental illnesses? I would have thought philosophically that the policy should look to use a “stick” with players experimenting with drugs while showing “care” to those battling addiction and accompanying mental health issues.
People must be responsible for their actions, but if someone has developed a drug addiction because they were self-medicating depression, or anxiety, or another form of mental illness, it seems both cruel and too simplistic to kick them out of a potential sanctuary for them – football.
I’ve heard some of the AFL’s reasons for wanting to review the drugs policy. The first is the link between illicit drug use and performance-enhancing drugs. There have been media stories saying that illicit drugs are sometimes cut with performance-enhancing drugs like clenbuterol. I don’t doubt it is true, and I believe that anyone found guilty of taking performance-enhancing drugs, whether deliberately or accidentally, through other forms of drug use, should be penalised. In an odd way, catching a player using performance-enhancing drugs should be celebrated, as it safeguards the integrity of the game.
But catching accidental dopers should not be celebrated as much as catching rogue players who are deliberately doping to gain an edge over their rivals. It is widely accepted that there is not currently an accurate test for human growth hormone, or micro-doses of plant-based testosterone, through creams, patches and injections. Therefore, the next generation of drug cheats will be caught via surveillance of gyms, anti-aging clinics and internet purchases, not by urine or blood tests.
I do not think that doping is currently a serious issue in our game. But any power sport, in which recovery is a major challenge for athletes, needs to be proactive in spending significant money on this type of surveillance. To use illicit drugs testing as a pillar for anti-doping, I believe, will set our game up for a fall in generations to come.
The second reason the AFL says it wants to review the illicit drugs policy is concern for the players’ health. If this is true, why would the AFL target only players, and not the industry’s thousands of other employees? Surely the mental health of an office worker at AFL House is just as important as the mental health of the players? And if the data is correct, and there is a significantly smaller problem among players than the community at large, perhaps the AFL would get better bang for its buck by targeting drug use on the other side of the fence.
‘The missing reason – which isn’t much spoken about – is the commercial cost the AFL pays if there is a perception that it is soft on drugs.’
If player wellbeing is at the core of this review, should the AFL impose limits on what players are able to gamble each week? There are many people in the industry, myself included, who view gambling as by far the biggest social issue for AFL players. I do not believe the AFL should have any role in deciding how much players are allowed to gamble. Nor do I think the AFL should ban revenue from gambling companies. William Hill is one of our sponsors at Carlton, and I’m grateful for their support. I don’t imagine we have a long waiting list of corporate partners wanting to contribute at the minute!
I constantly hear that the drugs policy needs to be looked at because illicit drugs are, well, illegal. Yes they are, as is speeding in your car (both illegal and dangerous for your and others’ health), as is downloading Game of Thrones from dodgy online channels (anecdotally, this is also a minor issue for AFL players!). Thankfully in Australia, we have police and a relatively efficient judicial system, which means organisations like the AFL can focus on running a fair and exciting competition while leaving law enforcement to the experts.
So why is there this urgency to change the illicit drugs policy? There is an element of truth in all the reasons put forward by the AFL. But the missing reason – which isn’t much spoken about – is the commercial cost the AFL pays if there is a perception that it is soft on drugs. Consumer brands don’t want to be associated with a competition that is thought to have a drug problem, even if the data doesn’t support that argument. To maximise TV rights and the money corporate partners are prepared to tip in, the AFL must be seen to be acting decisively on the issue. Obviously, the illicit drugs “industry” – as opposed to gambling – doesn’t contribute any money to the AFL. Further, the effects of problem gambling on players usually are apparent only behind closed doors, which is also why the AFL is not as motivated to act on gambling as it is on illicit drugs.
Most people advocating a change to the illicit drugs policy do so with good intentions. And it would be wrong to think that my arguments are born of a lack of care about the issue, and the associated pain illicit drugs can cause players, their families and football clubs. Far from it, I care deeply about what is an incredibly complex issue. I just worry when it is debated in overly simplistic terms.
This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.