Doping shock: pointing the finger at sports scientists

In light of the Australian Crime Commission report into doping, we need to look at how sport scientists are taught. Drugs in sport image from www.shutterstock.com

The report recently released by the Australian Crime Commission sent shock waves through the sporting world, implicating sport scientists and other support personnel in unethical doping practices.

The report came just after the revelation that sports scientist Stephen Dank at the Essendon Football Club was allegedly involved in a dubious performance enhancement program. The club and Dank now dispute who knew about the program and whether players gave the proper consent.

In light of these events, the role of sports science itself has been called into question and some have asked whether they have too much control over the management of sport performance in professional sports. There have even been calls to reinstate the authority of sport doctors.

All in all, it was not a good week for the image of the sports science profession. But, is there enough evidence to justify the swipe at sports science?

Exercise and Sport Science Australia (ESSA), the peak body for the exercise and sports science profession, came out publicly to try to counter the dual hit to the profession.

Its spokesperson pointed out that the sports scientist embroiled in the Essendon saga is not ESSA accredited. The ESSA statement also included the organisation’s commitment to scientific and ethical best practice and called on professional sport to require ESSA accreditation of its sports science personnel.

What does a sport scientist know?

Given that ESSA establishes the criteria by which sport scientists are accredited, it may be useful for the public to be aware of just what it takes to become a sport scientist and the many ethical responsibilities they juggle once in practice.

To begin with, a sport scientist is expected to have at least one academic degree covering relevant scientific discipline knowledge and its application in areas such as anatomy, biomechanics, exercise and sport physiology, motor learning and skill acquisition and sport psychology.

From undergraduate through to postgraduate training, a sport scientist develops the ability to understand and critique the scientific literature, to contribute to the body of knowledge through research, and to apply cutting-edge knowledge to professional practice.

At the same time, a sport scientist has to be a principled practitioner, ensuring that the production or application of knowledge is done collaboratively and according to accepted legal, ethical and professional standards and codes of conduct.

In other words, they must understand not only the scientific and technical aspects of their profession, but also the underlying social, ethical and legal dimensions of various issues, practices and human relationships that exist within sport.

Ethical research

Research undertaken by an ESSA-accredited sport scientist complies with both ESSA guidelines and National Health and Medical Research Council regulations.

Central to research ethics is informed consent. Athletes are made aware in lay terms the research aims, methods, risks and safeguards – such as privacy and confidentiality – and have the ability to ask questions before they sign a consent form. The consent form also acknowledges that the athlete has the right to withdraw consent, without prejudice, if for any reason they do not want to continue participating in the research study.

Also important here is the requirement that sports science researchers gain permission from or within sport clubs before recruiting athletes, ensuring that the club is aware of research aims, methods, risks and safeguards.

Confidentiality is another key ethical principle for sports science research, but also for professional practice. Sport scientists adopt procedures to maintain strict confidentiality in terms of the results of performance evaluations, as well as training or rehabilitation data.

There is much at stake here – information about a player’s performance level or injury status, if made public, could be harmful to the athlete, the team, and to the sport in general, especially if the information was leaked to opposing teams or to gambling bookmakers seeking to gain a competitive advantage.

A position of influence

A well-trained sport scientist will have the capacity to recognise and manage the power relationship that exists between them and athletes. The more athletes desire to achieve performance improvements, the more they can become dependent on sport scientists and other support personnel (for example, nutritionists or sport psychologists).

As a result, sport scientists can occupy a position of considerable influence and control within their athletes’ lives. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and it can be used in a way that keeps the athlete dependent or it can be shared to help athletes make informed decisions about performance enhancement interventions.

A blind trust in sport scientists or other support personnel can leave athletes vulnerable to abuse or exploitation. For example, an unscrupulous sport performance adviser, who may have an external stake in a pharmaceutical company, may administer a range of supplements to athletes for the purpose of assessing their effectiveness or to boost sales.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Code of “strict liability” suggests that athletes are ultimately the ones responsible for what goes into their bodies. Yet, an ethically-informed sport scientist would be aware of the WADA Code proscriptions against aiding and abetting doping, as well as prescriptions to encourage athlete compliance with the Code.

A professional education

These are but a few examples of social, ethical and legal issues, the understanding of which are part and parcel of a well-rounded professional education for sports scientists.

Rather than point the finger of blame, we should be applauding ESSA and the education institutions who are working together to produce scientifically grounded and ethically responsible practitioners in the sport industry.

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