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Drugs in the sporting workplace

Sports Minister Kate Lundy at the release of the ACC report into organised crime and sport in Australia. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Sport administrators, employers, policy makers, sponsors, parents and sport fans are understandably scratching their heads right now, as to the facts underpinning claims of corruption and crime in Australian sport.

Unfortunately, the facts are always partial when you deal with illicit behaviours. So I will just outline some of the factual material that has appeared and make some comments about how clubs and codes might need to approach this issue from a player welfare point of view.

The recently released Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report provides some new information, although it’s main contribution is to organise a broader story that extends across a number of sporting codes. The ACC formed a taskforce with the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) in October 2012, ostensibly in response to anti-doping revelations by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. However, the indicators of a relationship between sport and drugs were changing before this time.

The ACC Illicit Drug Data Report reported that in 2010/11, both the number and weight of steroid seizures were the highest recorded in the last decade. In 2010/11 steroid arrests were up by sixteen percent, to 365 nationally and were the highest on record. Those familiar with law enforcement data will know that data such as this are called “discovery” data, and can reflect the intensity of policing activity rather than actual changes in drug consumption. These data were however from the year previous to the formation of the ASADA- ACC taskforce suggesting that perhaps something substantial was going on before increased cooperation between the agencies.

Two weeks ago the AFL CEO’s received data from the AFL chief medical officer regarding an increase in positive tests for cocaine and amphetamines among players. The proportion of positive tests had increased, and while testing is not random and some caution should be taken when generalizing to the whole playing group (around 850 players), there are strong indications that stimulant use is on the rise among AFL league players. What was critical was the coincidence of illicit drug taking (cocaine and amphetamine) with alcohol among players. It was noted by the AFL that players often used these drugs with their non-football mates “just to feel normal”.

Back in 2008 the AFL received a report on player alcohol consumption. The report noted that hazardous consumption among players in non-playing times was high and recommended specific club and league strategies to minimise drinking-related harms to players.

Even if this was the full extent of the factual data being provided to clubs, the picture for clubs as employers (and sporting codes as policy coordinators) is compelling, however it raises complexities about what are the responsibilities for clubs in this workplace.

Professional clubs and codes have a workplace obligation to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees. Indeed AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou has been quoted as saying recently that the AFL had “dropped the ball on alcohol”. There has been a historical distinction however between what happens at the workplace (training and gameday) and what happens outside the workplace.

In a professionalised sporting club setting, these distinctions however carry little weight. Clubs are increasingly controlling, and being held responsible for off-field player behaviour. An alternative approach is to consider the whole sporting environment, when thinking about welfare and wellbeing.

It is tricky for clubs to be held liable for illegal activities or for an individual’s risky behaviour when they are not at work. In safety critical industries, workplace testing is often seen as a method for ensuring employees do not consume prohibited substances. These testing regimes can be very costly. Far less money could be used to support effective cultural change and workplace safety programs. As Donna Bull, an expert in workplace drug testing asserts, workplace testing in the Australian aviation industry cost around $30 million in the first three years of its establishment and produced around 27 positive results, making it a very costly detection regime. Even in these industries there is little said about ensuring the welfare of employees outside their direct work environments.

Surely a better approach would be to prevent these behaviours in the first place, by creating enabling environments, where sporting clubs encourage healthy choices rather than unhealthy ones, by changing the broader sporting and policy environments for those in their clubs.

An example of this approach can be found in local sport. In 2010 VicHealth (the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation) funded the Healthy Sporting Environments Trial which aimed to support 100 clubs to reduce alcohol consumption, improve nutrition, reduce tobacco exposure and make local sporting clubs more inclusive places. The program was introduced because public survey work revealed that whilst sporting clubs offer a great vehicle for healthy activities, they are not always perceived as healthy places. Hazardous alcohol and junk food consumption, smoking and the predominance of unwelcoming behaviours (especially to women) do not confer wellbeing. The trial is almost complete, so we should find out soon enough whether local sporting clubs can prevent these behaviours by providing more healthy environments.

It will be interesting to see how sporting clubs and codes respond to the challenge ahead. Most predictably we will see lots more integrity, urine and background testing, however what would make even more sense is if clubs took a healthy environments approach to improve the welfare of its employees.

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