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Bounce of the ball

‘The clubs are really angry’: the AFL illicit drug’s policy under a blowtorch

AAP/Dan Himbrechts

The AFL season opened this week. But on the day that Collingwood was slated to play Sydney, the media was focusing on much more than the footy. The Herald Sun alleged that 11 Collingwood players had positive tests for illicit drugs during the off-season.

This was presented as incontrovertible evidence that the latest iteration of the illicit drug policy, developed by the AFL and the players’ association (AFLPA), was a failure. More than that, it was said to be flawed because AFL clubs were not central to the policy’s process, but bore the brunt of reputational damage if a player transgressed.

As one unnamed club executive bemoaned:

We’ve had a gutful of being blamed for the league’s failed policies.

Football journalist Mark Robinson, who broke the Collingwood story, put it this way:

We have a situation where the clubs are really angry.

Collingwood: from champion to villain

The battlelines were drawn well before Round 1, 2016. Collingwood CEO Gary Pert has long championed greater involvement by the clubs in terms of illicit drug detection and the management of players who test positive.

Pert is sincere in the conviction that, particularly in the off-season, some footballers engage in “volcanic behaviour” in terms of illicit drugs (not to mention alcohol). He spearheaded debate within the football industry that culminated in AFL club chief executives meeting to discuss the illicit drugs policy at a forum in January 2013.

Pert’s warnings came home to roost in early 2015 when Collingwood’s Josh Thomas and Lachie Keeffe used an illicit drug: they did not realise that the cocaine they allegedly ingested was laced with a WADA-banned substance, clenbuterol. The players are now in the midst of a two-year ban from all sport. A furious Pert told the Collingwood faithful:

Anyone in our game who chooses to consume illicit drugs must also from now on accept that they may also be consuming a performance-enhancing drug … The game has changed for athletes as of today.

The 2016 illicit drug policy

During 2015, a new iteration of the illicit drugs policy was developed by the AFL and AFLPA. The most important change is at the second “strike”. Players who have a second offence for an illicit drug out-of-competition will now be named publicly, receive a four-match ban and a fine of A$5000.

Confidentiality will only apply at the first strike, at which point the athlete is obliged to undergo medical assessment and drug counselling with the aim of behavioural change.

In the weeks leading up to the new AFL season there were rumblings within the media that the clubs, although pleased to see changes at the second strike, wanted more influence and a greater role in “managing” illicit drug issues among their playing group. In March, journalist Patrick Smith in The Australian complained that:

The clubs are forced to battle about in the dark. The AFL, if it truly wants to cut down drug abuse and protect players, must cede the operation of the drug code to the clubs.

Collingwood was again vocal. In February, club president Eddie McGuire argued that “it’s time for the AFL to start drug testing the underage teams”, as this had an impact on whether clubs would select junior players in the national draft. In a curious leap of logic he claimed:

It doesn’t mean you won’t pick them but it could mean you save them a bit earlier.

Pert, meanwhile, reflected on the impact to behaviour within his club of the two suspended Collingwood players. In March he concluded that:

… probably for a short period of time, it had a real shock value, but I think … it hasn’t fundamentally changed things.

He lamented clubs having no information that the illicit drug policy altered behaviour, and so called on the AFL and the Players Association to consider further adjustments.

Pies on the sauce

As part of the new illicit drugs poicy, hair tests during the off season were agreed upon. There were two key elements to this: to evaluate the efficacy of a more sophisticated type of hair testing that traces much more minute levels of illicit drugs; and for this to be done in the first instance as a research exercise, with the information shared by the AFL, AFLPA and the clubs.

Mark Evans, the AFL’s general manager of football operations, contended that at some stage hair tests could be a strike, but for now the data was deidentified. When the clubs recently received raw information about off-season hair testing, the confidential nature of that data was well understood by them.

Collingwood, which had been most outspoken that clubs should test their own players and manage illicit drug issues themselves, was the subject of a leak to the media, with 11 unnamed players allegedly detected in off-season hair testing. After this revelation, McGuire, complained that his club had been “thrown right under a bus”, while coach Nathan Buckley said his players had been “betrayed”.

The source of the leak is protected by the media, but it is fair to presume that very few individuals had access to the Collingwood raw data: the AFL, the AFLPA and the Collingwood executive.

One thing seems certain: Pert’s concern about lack of behavioural change in the off-season was vindicated by the results. It is not difficult to imagine his reaction upon receiving the raw data. How that information reached Robinson is unknown. But it has put a blowtorch on a revised policy that is barely three months old.

Clubs on the illicit drug offensive

McGuire took the opportunity to renew his calls for clubs to be given more responsibility in handling players’ use of illicit drugs. He said:

What I would really like to have come out of this is some community leadership, and maybe for the AFLPA and AFL to realise that people best placed to deal with this are the clubs.

McGuire’s cheerleading emboldened other clubs. David Koch, president at Port Adelaide, asserted that clubs would continue to push for a tougher stance, and he saw “an issue” because the illicit drugs policy was developed by the AFL and AFLPA who “won’t let you [clubs] be involved”.

With a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to be negotiated later this year, Koch had a stark warning for athlete/employees:

Now when the new CBA comes up … if you guys want pay rises, well, then, you have got to let us take more control of this illicit drug issue.

Greater Western Sydney CEO Dave Matthews posited a Thatcherite solution. He said of the players:

I wouldn’t be negotiating with you, I’d be simply just saying we’re offering 800 jobs at $300,000 a year and here are the conditions of your employment.

Clubs as player welfare managers

A common refrain in all of this is that clubs are “best placed” to manage illicit drug issues. In that context Melbourne coach Paul Roos insisted:

The thing that we [clubs] do best … is player welfare. That’s something we pride ourselves on.

Meanwhile, Fremantle CEO Steve Rosich argued that clubs were best placed to help players who were experimenting with drugs and they deserved to know straight away. After all, he explained:

The clubs have the players’ best interests and welfare at heart.

This is a very curious situation. Assumptions that clubs are inherently virtuous in player welfare fly in the face of what took place at Essendon (and Cronulla). Claims that club executives and coaches have expertise in illicit drug issues are farfetched. What these stakeholders really want is information in order to control. Read “players’ best interests” as “clubs’ best interests”.

The intent may well be benevolent, but the clubs will not rest until they, not the AFL and the AFLPA, are testing the athletes. Against this tide, Geelong coach Chris Scott has issued a warning:

I would understand if the players said, “Forget about it. Let’s just take what the swimmers do and the track and field athletes do and the Olympic athletes do, and let’s submit ourselves wholly and solely with WADA and forget about this illicit drugs nonsense”.

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