Recent calls for a stricter AFL drug policy have again fomented debate around changing societal values, mental health and harm reduction. So can a perfect balance be struck between protecting players and safeguarding the integrity of the game? By Jill Stark.

Illicit drugs and the AFL

Hawthorn’s Travis Tuck trains at Waverley Park in September 2010 after becoming the only player to receive a 12-match ban under the AFL’s three-strikes drug policy.
Hawthorn’s Travis Tuck trains at Waverley Park in September 2010 after becoming the only player to receive a 12-match ban under the AFL’s three-strikes drug policy.
Credit: AAP Image / Julian Smith

In AFL circles there are two perennials that signal footy season is nearly here. One is fevered talk of moving the grand final to a twilight start. The other is a front-page drugs scandal.

In the lead-up to this week’s 2019 season opener, the AFL was once again forced to defend its illicit drug policy after former St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt claimed players’ recreational drug use was “out of control”.

The retired star said many footballers were “taking the piss”, using a loophole that allows those who record their first positive test under the league’s two-strike rule to avoid repercussions by citing mental health problems.

Riewoldt’s comments last month have reignited debate about whether the game’s harm-minimisation approach is working, with some calling for it to be abandoned for a more hardline stance.

The AFL will review its illicit drugs policy this year against a backdrop of evolving societal thinking on recreational drug use and a concerted push for pill testing and decriminalisation.

It poses difficult questions for sports administrators. What is the right balance between safeguarding the integrity of the game and protecting the welfare and privacy of players?

And should footballers who dabble in recreational drugs that provide no competitive edge be held to a higher standard than thousands of young people who use the same drugs in nightclubs every weekend?

“Elite sport is a high-stress environment – most footballers only last for three or four seasons, they can’t drink, they have to let off steam somehow,” says John Rogerson, former head of the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, and a drugs adviser to the AFL from 2008 to 2014.

“Young people are impulsive risk-takers and some of them are going to use illicit drugs. The whole point of this policy is to make sure we reduce harm as much as possible. To change course now will potentially make things much worse.”

The AFL Players’ Association backs Rogerson’s stance and is urging the league to resist Riewoldt’s calls for a zero-tolerance approach, which it fears could force players with substance problems out of the supported environment of the game and into harm’s way.

But some club presidents, including Hawthorn’s Jeff Kennett and Western Bulldogs’ Peter Gordon, have branded the drug code a “sham” that allows rampant illegal use to go unchecked.

They want the policy overhauled to ensure club officials are informed as soon as players test positive, arguing they have a right to know who is breaking the law.

The secrecy around how many players are caught taking drugs, and who they are, goes to the heart of the debate. Under the policy – separate to the stricter World Anti-Doping Agency code that polices performance-enhancing drugs – players who test positive for substances including cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines are first given a suspended fine and counselling and are subjected to ongoing random testing. Their club’s medical director or doctor are the only officials to be informed of the positive test.

Only on a second strike is a player’s name made public and a four-match ban imposed. After a third strike, a 12-match suspension applies.

The policy – which footballers entered into voluntarily under an agreement brokered between the players’ association and the league – has a player welfare focus and is designed to catch problematic substance use early.

Its ethos of treating illicit drug use as a medical rather than criminal issue was heralded by harm-reduction experts as world-leading when it was introduced in 2005 in response to an incident in which two Carlton players arrived at training under the influence of ecstasy.

But from the start, the policy was contentious. Not long after its introduction, then AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou received a visit at AFL House from Howard ministers George Brandis and Christopher Pyne, who demanded a tougher approach, saying the policy failed to meet the government’s expectations and also community standards.

Demetriou – a former players’ association boss – stood his ground and the policy has since been used as the benchmark for some of Australia’s leading sporting codes including NRL, cricket and rugby union, which have all adopted similar policies.

Since its inception, only one AFL player, Hawthorn’s Travis Tuck, has been suspended under the code, a statistic proponents say proves the system works as players are channelled into treatment and change their behaviour.

However, critics argue the fact there have been no second or third strikes is as much about protecting the AFL’s brand as it is player welfare, and that footballers are citing mental health problems to avoid sanctions.

The players’ association has strongly denied the claim and the AFL was last month forced to deny rumours that up to 16 players at one club were spared random testing.

In the absence of published results – a system that the players’ association backed out of in 2016 to protect player confidentiality after repeated media speculation around which footballers had recorded positive tests – it’s impossible to know for sure how widespread illicit drug use is in the game.

But Paul Dillon, director of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, who has spent 20 years delivering drug education to elite athletes in every football code, believes it is likely to be far less significant than headlines suggest. “Every piece of research that has been conducted looking at illicit drug use among elite sports shows that it’s dramatically less than in the general population,” Dillon says.

However, he does believe that mental health issues are being used as a smokescreen to obscure an uncomfortable truth.

“Most people who use cocaine or ecstasy use them for a very simple reason – to have fun. But as soon as an elite athlete gets caught the message changes and you have this range of mental health problems. That could be true in some cases but it is a loophole and it is a way of getting out of being caught,” he says.

Dillon believes former West Coast Eagles star Ben Cousins’ public struggles with drug addiction have played a major role in the public’s perception of drug use in football and how they feel the AFL should respond to it.

“Most people who have had nothing to do with illicit drugs truly do believe that you have a puff of cannabis and you’ll end up on [hard drugs]. The Ben Cousins story fits into that absolute tragic stereotype,” Dillon says.

“But it’s ridiculous to think that everyone who has one strike against their name is on that trajectory. If you’ve used ecstasy and gone to a nightclub, you don’t need treatment.”

While the AFL has already strengthened the policy, moving from a three-strike to a two-strike system for a playing ban, Riewoldt is among those pushing for a tougher approach that bans players after the first positive test.

John Rogerson considers this to be unnecessarily punitive and maintains that mental health provisions are in place for a reason.

“When the AFL had a three-strikes policy there were six or seven players on two strikes who were one strike away from being banned or rubbed out for 12 weeks and we knew that at least half of them had significant mental health issues,” he says. “Often they get into trouble with drugs because of a whole range of other things in their lives and they are self-medicating.”

According to one CEO of a Victorian club who declined to be named, this is exactly why club management should be informed when a player receives a first strike.

“The industry has evolved since this policy was created and clubs are much more player-welfare focused. You’re not just going to go and get these results and use it to sack someone,” he says.

That all sounds great, says Rogerson, if not for the fact that “clubs leak like sieves”.

“As soon as you tell someone who’s not bound by the Hippocratic oath, there’s a really high risk of that information getting leaked out into the public and that’s going to make the problem even bigger for the player.”

While parts of Europe and the United States move to decriminalise recreational drugs, Paul Dillon says we should not expect a major shift in professional sport, which is governed by a conservative world sporting body.

And in the public’s mind, he says, elite athletes will always be held to a higher standard.

“In almost every sport I’ve worked with they sign a contract that either explicitly states they will not take drugs or that they will not bring the game into disrepute,” he says. “Like it or not, they’re role models and they’re getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. If they want to use illicit drugs they don’t have to sign that contract.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 23, 2019 as "Code of conduct".

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Jill Stark is a Melbourne-based journalist and the author of the mental-health memoirs When You’re Not OK and Happy Never After.

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