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Illicit Drugs and the AFL - Where Do You Stand?

As the Essendon drugs saga rolled on… and on… and on, I felt something in relation to AFL football I’d never before felt – disinterest.

My team was riding high (ahem…) in the midst of an historic three-peat, yet my interest in the game as a whole was tarnished by the back page of the newspaper every single day, as new details were unearthed detailing the extent of the “supplements” scandal. I was turned off the game, and hated reading anything associated with the whole sorry mess. It was the only time in my life I thought about walking away from footy for good, so much did it impact my ability to enjoy the game.

Fast forward several years, and here we go again.

In a statement that will surprise absolutely no one, former St Kilda coach Grant Thomas claimed that illicit drug use was rife during his time at the Saints, and is a bigger problem in today’s AFL.

As someone on the extreme outside of the football world, it’s no secret that players - the majority of players have at least dabbled in illicit drugs. I’m a 40+ bloke, and I’ve had my go at it, as I am sure many others who are not AFL footballers have in their late teens and early twenties. Then again, I wasn’t being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to play footy and NOT take drugs at that stage of my life, and I damn sure wasn’t being drug tested as part of the conditions of my employment.

If I had been lucky/good enough to live that life, I may have chosen more wisely. Maybe not, but I’d like to think I’d have been a little smarter.

A person I know had a relative playing for Port Adelaide recently. She was talking to me about Ken Hinkley, and how he was pretty straight down the line with the way he ran the team. She explained that, at that point, the younger blokes didn’t like playing under him too much as a result.

“They just want to do pingas and have a good time,” she said of her cousin and his mates. It struck me as somewhat strange that she was defending her relative to a point despite the fact he was jeopardising his career.

"They're just young blokes," she added.

It got me thinking just how prevalent drug use would be amongst the playing group in an AFL club. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that it is rife.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those who get caught using illicit drugs. I’m a big believer in doing the time if you choose to do the crime, however on the surface, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no illicit drug problem in the AFL at all. I mean, how many high-profile players are sitting out because illicit drug-related suspensions?

Not many, right? Most people caught up in it seem to be former players. The current players would be doing the right thing then? It would appear so...

Well, that’s because there is a loophole that’s being used to avoid punishment. Two loopholes, in fact, and they’re being utilised to great effect by a well-educated, and yes - sneaky playing group.

Did you know that if you use illicit drugs and decide to self-report to the AFL, it does not count as a strike against you? You can head out on the town, take whatever someone hands you, have a great night, place a call the next morning, and like confession at church, all your drug-related sins are absolved. Twelve Sydney Swans players self-reported illicit drug use after their 2012 AFL Grand Final victory – over half the damn team! But as self-reporters, they were free to go on their way, despite being the poster children for AFL success that season. It doesn’t exactly seem right, does it? Some would say it places the same sort of asterisk next to the Swans’ victory as some attribute to the 2006 West Coast team. Others would say it’s simply part of the professional sporting world we now live in.

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The other “get out of jail free” card that players have at their disposal is the mental health excuse.

Now, I must stress, there are definitely those who suffer serious mental health issues, as evidenced by the recent Majak Daw incident that almost ended his life, and the ongoing advocacy from former North Melbourne and Sydney player, and now CEO of PukaUp, Wayne Schwass. His detailed accounts of his own mental health battles, both during and post-AFL career have opened many eyes over the years, and he continues to do good work raising awareness.

But I wonder how Schwass feels about those who are completely abusing the measures put in place to address mental health issues to get away with a habit that has little to do with their mental health, and more to do with a lifestyle they’re choosing to lead.

We’ve seen videos of Shane Mumford snorting lines, heard first-hand accounts of the after-hours habits of several top-line players, seen players overdose whilst on overseas trips, and even seen drugs result in the tragic death of a young woman associated with AFL Legend, Gary Ablett.

But due to the exploitation of loopholes, all seems well in the current AFL climate. It reminds me of Lieutenant Frank Drebin of Naked Gun fame, standing in front of an exploding fireworks factory with a megaphone shouting “Nothing to see here…”

When former Swan Dale Lewis finished his playing career and spoke out about growing drug use in the AFL in 2002, his character was assassinated by some in the football landscape. His accounts of the drug use were called an exaggeration and were summarily dismissed by those responsible for policing the abuse.

I wonder if there has been much in the way of an apology directed toward him in recent years as everything he mentioned has been proven correct, and even surpassed.

Jason Akermanis made a less than veiled accusation that one of the West Coast Eagles players he was competing against was on something as well, and threatened to name names as to players using drugs in his 2010 biography, Open Season. My guess is that several would’ve been running scared at the time with the release of that book pending. Never one to shy away from attention, Aker opted not to name those names, which was a little strange, but the fact that he was openly speaking about the abuse of drugs in the AFL should’ve set off more alarm bells.

But if an alarm bell goes off at AFL House, and no one is listening, does it really make a sound at all?

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The issue of illicit drugs in AFL circles reared its ugly head again this week, when Grant Thomas, on the podcast he shares with Mike Sheahan and Sam Newman (The SMT podcast… pretty good listening for those interested), stated that drug abuse was rampant during his time as St Kilda coach, but he really only became aware as to what level once his time at the club concluded and a player confided in him.

Thomas also stated in a follow up segment on SEN Radio that he believed drug use was now more common in the AFL.

“I suppose what the guys do these days is they have some (cocaine) and it’s well accepted amongst the playing group, but it’s a bit startling to people like myself.”

“It’s not in the AFL’s best interest for that to be on record, but it is what it is.”

He also backed it up on Twitter, pointing the finger directly at the AFL for their handling of the issue, in effect accusing them of putting their own image ahead of remedying the issue.

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As a 46 year old man, I may be a bit removed from the ins and outs of young fellas and drugs these days. I know some People who compare it to having a beer, in terms of acceptance in the groups they run in. I’ve seen a couple of friends pop a pill or snort a line at a party and no one else has batted an eyelid. My eyelids may have been batting like hell, but it was so readily accepted that after seeing it once, seeing it again barely registered a blip on my radar. How common must it seem to people much younger than me? I’m ten years older than the oldest player in the game – I’m out of the loop.

So, you might be able to help me out here – do we expect too much from AFL players, and sportspeople in general to be completely removed from a culture their age bracket so readily accepts? Or is being paid in the hundreds of thousands of dollars incentive enough to keep your nose clean (pardon the pun) and dedicate yourself to a career most of us would love to have had the opportunity at?

Have the AFL finally got it right with their tougher two-strike policy, or do they need to further crack down on drug use to prevent players from being able to successfully navigate through the minefield, with an impenetrable suit of “mental health” armour?

And more importantly, where does this all sit with you? Players, coaches, administrators… they may pull the reins in the AFL, but if fans start voting with their feet, it speaks volumes that simply cannot be ignored. Where do you sit on the issue, and does it at all affect the way you look at our great sport?

Drugs in footy almost caused me to give up on the game once before. I'd hate to head down that path again.

I’d love to hear what you think.

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