Not Again... are the AFL asleep at the wheel on drugs in sport?

It’s been five years since the day dubbed the darkest in Australian sport. The best part of the years and seasons since that day have been bogged in the biggest story our game has seen, and probably ever will. 

It is the story that dethroned a Brownlow Medallist, destroyed the reputation of another, and resulted in a finals series and a season being stolen off dozens of footballers. It left a sports scientist banned for life, bankrupt and his career all but shot. It brought a foundation football club to its knees with a government anti-doping agency and the most powerful sporting organisation in the country dealt brutal blows, and per the words of Mike Fitzpatrick the whole atrocity left “a stain on our game”. 

So as football’s latest drug scandal threatens to engulf up to sixty footballers and seven clubs, you must wonder, have we learnt a thing from what transpired in a basement office at Windy Hill?

The experimental or ‘wonder drug’ at the centre of this baffling new drug affair is Pentosan Polysulfate Sodium or PPS; a drug that was originally used to treat a painful bladder syndrome for women, but is now being used by AFL footballers to treat knee, hip and groin pain. Dual Brownlow Medallist and AFL Team of the Century member, Greg Williams has endorsed the drug.

“It really was a wonder drug for me,” said Williams.

Another former Blue, Andrew Walker believes the drug has potential to lengthen careers. 

Others have far less flattering reviews, such as several club doctors who “don’t want to use their players as guinea pigs, and [are] concerned about the bleeding potential” as reported in the Herald Sun. The unregistered drug is currently undergoing clinical trials and is not available to the general public. In fact, it is not even licensed for joint treatment at all. AFL players only have access to it due to a “special access scheme” loophole under the Therapeutic Goods Administration. 

However, it must be stated that the CEO of Paradigm Biopharmaceuticals, a Melbourne based company which focuses on the “repurposing of the drug PPS”, publicly declared that the AFL chief medical officer, Peter Harcourt approved the drug’s use. 

So, what is the problem then? 

The problem is this is not true. It is a falsehood. The AFL released a statement soon after, confirming its chief medical officer did no such thing. Thus, the position of up to sixty footballers and, by extension, their seven clubs lay in the hands of a group who incorrectly stated that use of the drug had been rubber stamped by the AFL. For those sixty-odd footballers, it’s a dangerous position to be in. There are thirty-four past and present footballers who can vouch for that.

Luckily, PPS is not prohibited by WADA. So, seven clubs including Carlton and at least three other Melbourne-based clubs can breathe a sigh of relief that there’ll be no investigators from that organisation sniffing around. However, if we’re going by the letter of the AFL’s own law, the unregistered drug in question would be banned by the AFL without approval. As stated, contrary to Paradigm’s claims, they have not received approval at all from the AFL. 

Unlike with the rules laid out by WADA, the AFL seem to be able to interpret its own rules whichever way it likes. It’s a strange practice, especially when so little time has elapsed since its “darkest day.” 

As uncovered by the Herald Sun, the AFL Prohibited Treatments List states no AFL player is permitted to “use a therapeutic good that is not listed or registered on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods, unless approved by the AFL”. 

To highlight the irony, this rule was introduced as a result of the elongated investigation, and subsequent suspensions of the Essendon Football Club. While reading the actual rule suggests upwards of fifty players have taken a banned substance, the AFL claims this is not the case has now determined that unregistered substances approved by the Therapeutic Goods Association now do not require AFL approval also.

Moreover, there is a bigger issue at play than whether the drug is legal or not, and that issue is with the system overall. We cannot have a system that allows up to sixty players taking a substance under the false assurance it has been approved by the AFL. Surely, we have learned a lesson from the endless headlines of the past five years? Surely we would be diligent about not putting our players and clubs in a situation like this again? 

Sadly, it seems we’re not quite that on top of things yet.

It is still far too easy for a dodgy sports scientist and a high-performance manager with a self-aggrandising nickname to take advantage of vulnerable footballers and mislead even an experienced club doctor. The AFL needs to be better, and so do the clubs. Not everyone is a good bloke. Not everyone should be trusted implicitly.

If the AFL’s only rule change in the wake up of the Essendon supplements saga is being applied loosely, if not completely ignored, it means that there needs to be more changes made. If it’s a recommendation, adopt it as policy. If it’s a guideline, make it a rule. We need a system that forces the AFL to approve every substance that is administered to a footballer under its watch. No secrecy. No strange interpretation of its own rule – a hard and fast way of monitoring and approving things properly.

The AFL are quick to use the line “duty of care” in any circumstance that relates to the way a player conducts himself on the field. They talk about the player’s responsibility to his fellow players and the game. 

It’s time that the they adopted that stance for themselves when it comes to how players are handled by their clubs off-field. The AFL has a duty of care to its players when it comes to what they’re putting into their bodies. They have the opportunity to be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem.

 

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