May 2006

The Nation Reviewed

The war on drugs

By Tim Lane

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.

Cover: May 2006
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