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Explainer: coaches, ASADA and drugs in sport

A dejected James Hird walks from the field after Essendon were beaten by Geelong in Rd17 2012. Hird faces media allegations that he has taken performance enhancing drugs. AAP/Castro

With a media firestorm engulfing James Hird, coach of AFL club Essendon, over allegations that he may have taken substances banned by sports doping agencies, where do coaching staff stand in relation to performance enhancing drug use?

Hird has denied any wrongdoing and says he welcomes the chance to clear his name.

“I have at all times fully adhered to, and promoted the WADA code and the AFL rules, and the code of ethics of the Essendon Football Club. I would never do anything to put the players of the Essendon Football Club or the club at risk,” he said.

The penalties for athletes caught using banned or performance enhancing drugs are clear under the regulations laid down the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority and the World Anti-Doping Authority.

The Conversation spoke with Associate Professor Bob Stewart in the School of Sport and Exercise Science at Victoria University about the exact position regarding coaching staff who use performance enhancing or banned substances and the difference between personal use being involved in a program of providing such substances to athletes.

Are there any restrictions on what substances coaching staff can take under ASADA regulations?

No there are not. ASADA regulations only cover athletes. That’s the focus of the whole legislation and regulation of drug use in sport.

If coaches are found to have taken non-ASADA approved substances, what penalties apply?

There are no penalties under the ASADA code. It only applies to athletes and players.

If a coach is found to have actively taken part in a program of using non-approved substances for players, what penalties apply?

Under the wider ASADA rules, there is provision for the supply or the trafficking, the posession and supply of substances. So theoretically you may find a coach implicated if in fact he or she is in possession of or supplying substances to the athletes directly.

If there are no legal restrictions, are there ethical considerations that would fall on the senior coach of 42 young men in terms of what they put into their bodies under his or her guidance?

There are ethical issues, but they’re very subjective ethical issues. You could say what a coach or an official does with their body should be seen as independent of what they do with the player’s bodies.

So to that extent there is a separation of decision making, and while there’s an ethical implication, for me it’s one of individual ethics, and a coach or an official should have the freedom to ingest into their body what they think is appropriate as long as it doesn’t impinge the athlete’s right to ingest or not ingest.

It appears to me that officials are becoming quite overzealous in their treatment of this problem. It’s one thing to look at the athletes and what they’re ingesting into their bodies and what they aim to achieve through that, but it’s another thing to then look at coaches and officials and start wanting to regulate what they put into their bodies.

For me it’s verging on the bizarre if you want to start controlling what they do with their bodies.

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