LET’S be clear.
The illicit drugs policy is not in place to catch players taking drugs and then boot them from the game.
It seeks to identify players who are experiencing challenges with illicit drugs and connect them with medical professionals with a view to driving long-term behavioural change.
This is a policy designed by experts that the players have voluntarily agreed to with a very specific purpose, which is medical intervention. It is separate and different to the WADA code, which is designed to stop athletes from having an unfair advantage in competition.
The illicit drugs policy (IDP) is not the silver bullet for illicit drug usage, but it has been successful in managing a very complex issue that the wider community is struggling with.
We know that some AFL players take illicit drugs. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported in 2016 that 28 per cent of Australians aged 20-29 used illicit drugs during a 12-month period. It’s naive to think that AFL footballers, a population of 1000 aged between 18 and 39, are immune.
Frustratingly, the recent conversation around this issue has been sparked by rumours, anecdotes and factually incorrect information and then progressed by ill-conceived ideas and solutions. We urge those criticising the IDP to first take the time to understand it.
Collaboration across the industry is key to shifting the dial on this issue, which is why the AFL and AFLPA work closely with the clubs through the IDP.
Every player is tested under the IDP. Club doctors are advised when one of their players records a positive test and then play a central role in the player’s case management.
Further to this, when a player is listed with a club after previously being on a list elsewhere, the club doctor at the new club is informed of any prior history. This allows clubs to have a level of awareness where players have prolonged ongoing issues with drug use.
Players who record positive tests and then disclose that they are suffering mental health issues are treated by a group of medical experts, engaged by the AFL, in conjunction with their club doctor.
There are some clubs who want even greater transparency, but I ask the question — what additional value would more people from outside the medical profession bring to this issue?
Strict confidentiality is a non-negotiable aspect of this policy. Let’s not forget this is a voluntary policy, and one that very few other workers in our country agree to. Given the sensitivities and possible prejudices associated with releasing this type of information, it is entirely reasonable that players’ rights are protected here.
Mental health is the biggest issue confronting our players and the link with illicit drugs is clear. We know from medical professionals that there are AFL players using illicit drugs to self-medicate mental illnesses.
It disturbs me that some of our industry leaders are publicly questioning the legitimacy of players who have disclosed that they are being treated for mental health issues through this policy.
For all the work our industry and broader society has done on de-stigmatizing mental illness, these types of assertions are both irresponsible and extremely disappointing.
There seems a growing thirst for a zero tolerance approach to illicit drugs, but this is not an approach recommended by the experts who helped design this policy.
We updated the policy in 2016 and we are committed to evolving it to ensure it remains consistent with best practice.
Where we won’t be going is down a path where young people are caught by a system designed to identify, embarrass and isolate.
I firmly believe that there’s no better place for a player to rehabilitate than through the support mechanisms available within this industry.
We choose not to publish annual data demonstrating the IDP’s performance, but that doesn’t mean there’s not living proof of its success.