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AFL, NRL – it’s time to move on from anti-doping

With the AFL and NRL “doping scandals” grinding on it seems there’s no end in sight to this saga. But there should be – and soon. Anti-doping will never work and should be replaced with a different approach…

Anti-doping is about protecting the integrity of sport, but what about the people? ĐāżŦ {mostly absent}

With the AFL and NRL “doping scandals” grinding on it seems there’s no end in sight to this saga. But there should be – and soon. Anti-doping will never work and should be replaced with a different approach, as outlined below.

Former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) John Fahey has declared the “war on drugs in sport” unwinnable. The fundamental reason for the failure of anti-doping rests with “why”.

The World Anti-Doping Code uses the Spirit of Sport statement as its moral basis - 11 virtues with no clear definition. It never tells us what constitutes courage in sport, or teamwork, or health, or fair play.

As I argued in my submission to the recent Senate Inquiry into sports science, the Spirit statement is ineffective when it comes to guiding behaviour in Australian sport.

The Senate Committee agreed.

Protection and control

After pointing out the hypocrisies, contradictions and paradoxes of anti-doping for a while it becomes like shooting fish in a barrel.

Jarrod Bannister. AAP/Mick Tsikas

For example, anti-doping ends up protecting the integrity of sport rather than people. The “whereabouts” system that enables out-of-competition testing requires players and athletes to report when and where they will be available for drug testing or be punished - as happened to Australian javelin thrower Jarrod Bannister earlier this month. This sort of control is usually reserved for dangerous convicted criminals rather than athletes unlikely to ever be guilty of a doping offence.

You then have someone watch “the sample leave your body” - which means a stranger scrutinises your genitals as you urinate. Apparently the right to freedom of movement and dignity are denied because “sport” is more important than any individual.

In the attempt to protect the integrity of sport and control athletes' bodies we end up with a ridiculously complex system that defies even the best legal and scientific minds, let alone the poor bloody athletes and their support teams.

From my point of view, the Essendon and Cronulla “scandals” represent the failure of the drug control system rather than a failure of any player, support staff, coach or governance structure.

Indeed, the AFL’s charges against the Essendon Football Club and officials of bringing the game into disrepute smacks of being a punishment for being caught rather than doing something wrong. As I’ve written previously in relation to Lance Armstrong, unless they investigate everyone the process lacks integrity - it is about trashing Essendon rather than doing something about doping in the AFL.

Coach James Hird is one of four Essendon club officials to be charged by the AFL. AAP/Joe Castro

In 2010 I put forward an argument that we need to move on from wasting everyone’s time, pointing out the many deficiencies of anti-doping.

Effecting change – a proposal

We need to move into second-generation drug control in sport. The AFL and NRL are well placed to do it.

First, show some courage and stop being World Anti-Doping Code compliant. Neither the AFL nor the NRL is ever going to be an Olympic sport so it makes no sense they should have to follow the drug control system mandated by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

They lose some millions of dollars in Federal Government funding by doing so, but that could easily be recovered elsewhere - perhaps in savings on administrative costs of having to deal with anti-doping.

Second, use the existing structures to set up a “permitted list”. Drawing on the excellent resources of the sports physicians associated with each sport, the players associations, and people who actually have a clue about drug control, the AFL and/or the NRL could set up a list of supplements and prescription drugs that players are allowed to use on their own or under medical supervision.

Shane Flanagan was reinstated as head coach of the Cronulla Sharks in March after being stood down as a result of an ASADA investigation. AAP/Jane Dempster

That list might include substances that aid recovery or enhance performance. It provides clear guidance to general practitioners and non-elite players about what they can use safely and effectively, and may even reduce drug misuse and abuse in non-elite sport where ignorance is a clear and present danger.

Importantly, this system should be run by the players - after all, their bodies are on the line and they understand better than faceless bureaucrats the toll their sport takes.

This emphasis would return the concept of informed decision-making back to drug use in sport rather than the zealotry of the anti-doping crusade and its body count of infidels sacrificed for the greater glory of the IOC.

The list approach also has moral force - when players decide drug use is “cheating” it means something very different to the decision of a career sports administrators. Clubs or pharma companies could apply to the AFL or NRL for substances to be placed on the permitted list.

Substances could be placed on the permitted list after satisfying rigorous tests around the short-, medium- and long-term health implications of their use in the sporting context.

Finally, this system gives those involved the power to determine what is considered acceptable and unacceptable forms of performance enhancement for their sport, rather than the IOC decree that performance enhancement is somehow “wrong”.

Making the list approach work

Players should be tested regularly relative to this list - perhaps every two weeks. Any substance detected that is off the list would trigger immediate suspension until the source can be identified along the same lines as other infractions.

The reason for the suspension would be to protect athlete health rather than punishment. A system aimed at preserving the integrity of athletes might well see players wanting to be part of drug control rather than trying to “get away with it”.


The list approach may also reduce the impact of organised crime. Certainly the black market for doping substances would change.

To many this proposal might seem radical. It is actually a variant of Bird and Wagner’s proposal first published in 1996, and the position advocated by Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton in 2004. At this point managers in the AFL and NRL are terrified of a system that allows players to use “drugs” – and that’s part of the problem.

Managers need to get in touch with the reality of modern sport. Players already use a wide range of drugs (such as caffeine and painkillers) to cope with the competition imposed on them by managers, coaches, broadcasters, journalists and fans.

All this proposed approach does is codify current practice rather than fight an unwinnable war. The AFL and NRL are big enough to lead the way on this.

Let’s dump the anti-doping crusade to protect the integrity of sport and implement a system of drug control that respects the integrity of people.

Further reading:
See more Conversation articles on drugs in sport.

Join the conversation

13 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Amey

    logged in via Facebook

    To me, the 'discovery' that some players at the elite level is a bit like discovering that the World Heavyweight Wrestling is put on. I remember, back in the 60s, when rugby league players would have cortisol injected into damaged joints on Monday, after the weekend game. At that stage it was probably legal, and probably prolonged their sporting careers for another season, or two, but may have caused, or disguised, long term damage.

    I agree that sports people are likely to use a medication/supplement/substance that may give them an 'edge', or at least get them through injury. I also agree that this should be supervised, and open to scrutiny, for the players' benefit rather than the integrity of the game.

    1. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Amey

      '...players at the elite level ...', should add: 'take performance enhancing substances'.

  2. Phil Murray

    logged in via Facebook

    The same difficulty of testing for illegal drugs still exists with this proposal - albeit with a less restrictive list. The testing issue is not where you put the boundary on what is legal, eg caffeine is OK, but how you monitor whatever is determined as illegal. Sportspeople will still need to be treated like "dangerous convicted criminals". Testing every two weeks just tells everyone when to take the illegal substances.
    Surely the argument is not being made that sportspeople will be happy with just the drugs on the approved list?
    I must be missing the point. Also, the emotive language is not helpful to the argument?

    1. Jason Mazanov

      Senior Lecturer, School of Business, UNSW-Canberra at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Phil Murray

      Thank you for your observations. The concept is by no means mature, and certainly less specified than I would like - but it is a popular media article rather than an academic or policy treatise. The aim is to get the idea into the public domain.

      In terms of the volume and nature of drug testing, it is by no means dissimilar to other key industries where drug testing is the norm rather than the exception. For example the intensity of drug testing in the airline industry is such that testing…

      Read more
    2. Phil Murray

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jason Mazanov

      I would draw a distinction between team sports and individual sports. For the latter the cause may be "unwinnable", especially internationally.
      Team culture I suggest is the best way to address matters, where individuals might have a lot of peer pressure to do the right thing.
      If a whole club organisation has an ethical problem, it is an easier issue to address. So in the case of Essendon, whatever the legal outcome, the fact that the players allowed themselves to be subjected to the regime as alleged reported by the AFL is the key issue to address.

    3. Jason Mazanov

      Senior Lecturer, School of Business, UNSW-Canberra at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Phil Murray


      You raise some good points and clearly have an insight into the issues at hand.

      The question of individual and team is less of a distinction than you suggest. There is just as much doping in individual as team events, and the effects on outcome are about the same. At least as far as I am aware, but there may be research out there which suggests otherwise.

      I agree that culture is an issue - but it is culture of society rather than clubs. The Essendon incident has seen a change…

      Read more
    4. Phil Murray

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jason Mazanov

      Jason...I claim no expertise on this topic but not sure I can share your views.
      I hypothesise that drugs in team sports should be easier to control because culture and organisational controls can operate in a way inapplicable for individuals.
      Scapegoating the club, if I understand you seems perfectly appropriate to me. Laxity can be indefensible. For example if a finance department is willing to pay drug bills which have not been countersigned by the club doctor.
      I agree that there is no logical distinction between acceptable and unacceptable performance enhancers. (My particular bete noire is some clubs being able to afford sending their teams for altitude training when other clubs presumable cannot afford it.) But if a club does break the agreed rules then hit them hard - I would not see that as demonising.
      Cheers Phil

  3. Dennis Hemphill

    Associate Professor of Sport Ethics at Victoria University

    The campaign against doping in sport is often likened to a 'war' on the cheats and a 'fight' for 'pure' sport, making it almost unpatriotic to question it. At worst, it stifles public debate on the pros and cons of the anti-doping campaign. Thanks Jason for re-igniting the debate.

  4. ess elle


    I just love this site. If this is the future of news reporting and comment then I am all for it. Reasoned, passionate debate is what is needed in this country of ours, in fact the world over. The technology age is very fast moving, and thats great. Its the balance that is the most important though, we need to think very deeply about the issues that are on to us, and we are not prepared.

    Just like all technologies, health products have advanced at an ever increasing rate and with our heads…

    Read more
    1. Jason Mazanov

      Senior Lecturer, School of Business, UNSW-Canberra at UNSW Australia

      In reply to ess elle

      Thank you for your kind words! There has certainly been some personal cost to taking this position, and it is nice to know that there is support out there.

      Best wishes,


  5. Bradley Partridge

    Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Public Health at University of Queensland

    "...the AFL and/or the NRL could set up a list of supplements and prescription drugs that players are allowed to use on their own or under medical supervision. That list might include substances that aid recovery or enhance performance."

    Thanks for another interesting article Jason. Any chance you could give us a provisional list of drugs that you would allow on the "permitted list", so that we know what we're talking about?

    Or perhaps rule in/out the following drugs/methods:
    1) Human Growth Hormone
    2) Anabolic Androgenic Steroids
    3) EPO
    4) "Blood doping"
    5) AOD-9604
    6) Methylphenidate; dexamphetamine; modafinil.


  6. Joe Gartner

    Eating Cake

    Whilst the idea of 'approved' drugs, nominated by players as acceptable, makes a lot of sense - all it effectively does is widen the parameters. If use must still be controlled by random testing and punished by some kind of sanction, how is this materially different to zero tolerance? What should inform this permitted list of drugs? The essondon affair has clearly shown that athletes are willing to be experimented upon by all manner of substances - what insight does the athlete have into the pharmacopeia?

    If some drugs are deemed to be acceptable by athletes what implications does this have for amateur sport, school sport etc. Ther eis enough pressure on junior players to experiment with PEDs or presumed PEDs without an actual imprimatur to do so.

    Shifting the boundaries to what a player wants, not what society wants, does make sense from the participants point of view but what would it achieve, except from making sports scientists overjoyed.