The AFL has just had one of the most exciting opening rounds in recent memory.
The roar and energy of footy being back should have dominated the media coverage of our great game. Except it didn’t.
The headlines were dominated by speculation on perceived illicit drug use within the AFL playing group and, very unfairly, at one club in particular.
Unfortunately, over the past few years’ illicit drug use has become a routine headline. Five years ago it may have shocked us.
So why are we seeing so many provocative headlines?
Quite simply, it’s because the players as a collective have signed up to a voluntary code that enables the AFL to go above and beyond in testing for illicit substances. There is no requirement for players to sign up for this voluntary testing.
But the AFL players do and it’s a policy in which we have led the way in world sport.
This means that in addition to testing players under the WADA code for performance-enhancing substances, every player subjects themselves to illicit drug testing. This extends all the way to our off-season break while we’re enjoying some quality time with our family or friends.
This workplace policy makes the AFL one of only a handful of industries that tests employees – being the players only – for illicit drugs.
The AFL is the only industry I am aware of that tests when employees are away on holiday.
Most other industries that test for illicit drug use are primarily based on workplace safety for people performing roles with heavy duty equipment.
And ours is the only one I am aware of that tests when employees are away on holiday.
By agreeing to this, players have opened themselves up to extensive media coverage of their perceived drug use and discussion about whether we are doing enough on the issue of stamping out illicit drugs.
The players should be commended for committing to an illicit drugs policy, not condemned and shamed as seems the flavour of the month.
Since the introduction of the AFL’s Illicit Drugs Policy (IDP) in 2005, drug use in society has become a lot more prevalent.
That’s why as a playing group we committed to reviewing the IDP last year and are in the process of rolling out an updated policy.
The new policy has moved away from the one implemented over a decade ago, which was purely a medical model with wellbeing at heart, and now acts additionally as a deterrent for players by reducing the old “three strikes” framework to to being publicly named and suspended after the second detection.
Confidentiality and medical assistance has always been a critical aspect of the model.
In addition to this, hair testing out of season has increased so that the AFL, the AFLPA and clubs can get a better indication of any illicit drug use in a period where players are perceived to be most at risk.
The hair-test results then inform the medical officers for targeted testing in-season.
An overview of out-of-season test results is also provided to each of the individual clubs, who were all demanding more oversight on their players, to enable them to gain a better understanding of whether drug use within their club is a cultural or educational issue.
Which leads to the situation we’ve seen this weekend – where a journalist decided to approach the clubs in an attempt to uncover what the out-of-season results were.
The results are provided so that experts – and by experts I am talking about leading medical and drug experts not those who think they are experts of our game – can put the appropriate measures in place to address a drug issue and provide the requisite solutions.
There have been calls from media and the public to take away the confidentiality of the testing, and to publish all results.
What does putting this information in the hands of journalists and the public achieve, that the drug experts cannot?
I am absolutely bewildered as to, why?
What does putting this information in the hands of journalists and the public achieve, that the drug experts cannot? This is not a policy we simply made up. It’s been developed, reviewed and updated based on sound knowledge and experience. From the real experts on the topic, not the pretenders. Both for medical reasons and as a deterrent.
The answer is that it would achieve nothing. It just feeds the voyeuristic nature of people who have nothing better to do than talk about others. It also creates false perceptions. Would they be happy to submit to testing and have their results published?
And while illicit substance use continues to make the headlines, AFL testing results show that drug use among AFL players is under the levels of use by the men in our community of a similar age (18-34 years old).
That’s not to say we shouldn’t aim for zero positive results in this space. This is a goal to which we should continually aspire.
But the reality is we’re dealing with an issue that is much bigger than football, and that no one within society is close to solving.
Many people have called for a zero-tolerance policy, saying that if we suspended or banned any player caught using then we would have a clean competition.
Maybe. But what would that really achieve? What unintended consequences would that have?
My sense is that we’d have created a false environment because of fear and rule, rather than one based on leadership, education and the ability to make good decisions.
The reality is that athletes are human just like everyone else and as such are fallible. We too may succumb to society’s pitfalls.
We make mistakes just like every other human being that walks down the street alongside us.
Players are not immune to the same difficult circumstances, anxiety and lifestyle choices that are constantly bubbling away in the community. At times societal pressures are amplified due to the scrutiny, demands and expectation of professional sport.
If we take a zero-tolerance approach, then I can guarantee the problem will be a much bigger one when players eventually leave the game.
As an industry, we owe it to young footballers to ensure they leave the game as better people than when they walked in. This includes teaching them how to make good decisions.
If we don’t do this and take a zero-tolerance approach, then I can guarantee the problem will be a much bigger one when they eventually leave the game.
These young men would exit the industry and be put in an environment where for the first time in their life they are without structure and schedule, while dealing with the stress and pressure of transitioning from a career and life they lived and breathed, into the unknown.
Which means that a zero-tolerance policy is reduced to being a short-term brand fix or reputational management tool, and without one thought to a player’s welfare and long-term health.
The new policy has only just been introduced. The main focus remains on identifying problems and assisting any players who may be battling habitual use and associated mental health issues, but also acts as a strong deterrent to those who foolishly may be continually experimenting with drugs; those who put their health at risk and who may potentially bring the game into disrepute.
The increased media, perceived lack of anonymity and scrutiny around rumour and innuendo only makes players, who up until now have been overwhelming in their support for a policy, question why they voluntarily subject themselves to something that only tarnishes their collective reputations.
And that’s the last thing any of us want. Because we believe it works.
Click HERE to read the updated 2016 Illicit Drugs Policy.
Click HERE to read a statement from AFL Players boss Paul Marsh about recent criticism of the policy