May 2006

The Nation Reviewed

The war on drugs

By Tim Lane
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In one of the more conspicuous poacher-to-gamekeeper transformations of recent times, former AFL Players’ Association head Andrew Demetriou became the football league’s boss. As CEO of the AFL he has thus far done well, overseeing the negotiation of a five-year deal with the Seven and Ten networks worth $780 million dollars. That was the fun part. Now he has to keep stakeholders happy by distributing the money fairly. Already his former constituency is indicating it will fight, if it has to, for what it believes is a just reward. It’s a group that has been primed for a stoush: the relationship between the AFL administration and the league’s players has been strained recently by another issue, one in which the players feel their former leader has made a rod for their backs.

The issue is drug testing, particularly for non-performance-enhancing substances used during the off-season – party drugs, in short. Demetriou’s AFL has imposed a testing program that has the potential to trap players when they are months away from their next game. It’s understood that such a program is appropriate for performance-enhancing drugs, which can be taken during the off-season to great advantage later. But its application to recreational drugs is contentious.

Earlier this year it became known that three AFL players had twice returned positive tests for recreational drugs. They are now just one toke away from being publicly named and subjected to the AFL’s justice system – not to mention the legal system, if the law sought to act against a player so exposed. The identities of the three players are already known to almost every sports journalist in the land, yet the AFL, in enlisting the players’ somewhat reluctant support for its program, had guaranteed confidentiality until a player returned a third positive test. The AFL is now in the embarrassing position of having to take out a court injunction to prevent public disclosure of names that its own drug-testing system would disclose just one step further down the track.

Despite the obvious injustice, the players are fighting a losing public-relations battle. The public perception is that a player who returns a positive test is a drug cheat. The reality is more complex, but the perception is readily exploited by those who wish to impose rules on players that they don’t face themselves.

The first area of dispute concerns the scope of drug testing in sport. For years it has been in the interests of athletes to expose themselves to testing for performance-enhancing drugs. They have generally done this. Some substances defined as performance-enhancing are also commonly used for recreational purposes, so there can be some overlap in the breadth of screening, but there are other drugs in social use for which some sports administrations now choose to test. It’s hard to imagine that this would have occurred without the Trojan horse of tests for performance-enhancing drugs, and it has nothing to do with the corruption that first brought drug testing to sport.

The second issue on which the players are losing is that the substances in question are mostly illegal. This seems to be the clincher for the public. Never mind that a group of employees is being subjected to a condition that few workers face; the prevailing view seems to be that footballers are somehow different. The argument has it that the players are ‘role models’, and well-paid ones at that. Yet Eddie McGuire is a well-paid role model and he doesn’t face drug testing when he arrives at work – either as CEO of the Nine Network or as president of Collingwood. Many of the young men being subjected to this stringent new program are modestly paid unknowns who are now being screened to see if they have smoked a joint. And, if they have, it could cost them their jobs.

Apart from the AFL, those most interested in subjecting the players to this testing program are the league’s clubs, with the federal government seemingly not far behind. The clubs’ administrators and coaches have never knocked back a chance to have more control over their players: they want their bodies, and they want them in optimum shape every weekend. A system that helps them with that – no matter how intrusive it might be – is to their liking. They argue that their interest is in the players’ wellbeing; their only criticism of the current system is that it doesn’t give them earlier access to the identity of those who return positive tests (for counselling purposes, of course). But if a list of players’ names has already reached news desks somewhere between the Australian Sports Drug Agency and the AFL, what hope of confidentiality is there when clubs become involved?

The newest club president has been the most vocal about the need for greater disclosure: Jeff Kennett, now the reigning premier of Hawthorn. And, all along, the federal government has been an interested party. Sports minister Rod Kemp, in also urging early disclosure of players’ identities, has taken the unusual step of advising sports officials on how to do their jobs. It’s not hard to imagine what might be motivating him: the AFL became an agent for social change on racial vilification, and a government with a hardline stance on drugs would see sporting bodies as powerful proponents of its message. It would certainly not be pleased by a softening of the AFL’s line on drugs.

All of which leaves Andrew Demetriou looking uncomfortably placed. He has already crossed the government twice: once with his controversial 2005 Australia Day speech on immigration, and then with his attempt, late last year, to avoid signing the World Anti-Doping Agency’s protocol on drugs. He knows a third offence would not do him any good. By the time he gets to dole out the spoils of his TV-rights victory, the former players’ boss might have some serious smoothing to do.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Comment

Turn around you weren’t invited

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Show Your Bones’
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

When the wind blows

‘2006 Contemporary Commonwealth’ at Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia; Australian Centre for the Moving Image


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Lines in the sand

By failing to take Indigenous knowledge seriously, a scientific paper speculating on the origin of WA desert ‘fairy circles’ misses the mark

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Serving time (after time)

Australian citizens are being held in supervised facilities after they have served their prison sentence, amounting to indefinite detention

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality