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The AFL does not have an illicit drugs policy. It merely has a PR one

Outrage. Blind outrage. That is what has filled the football focused airwaves over the past fortnight pertaining to the AFL’s most contentious policy. It is little more than a PR policy masquerading as an illicit drugs policy.

The already raging fire was fanned by 3AW’s Ross Stevenson’s unsubstantiated claims that an AFL club has sixteen footballers on its list who have signaled as having mental health issues and are thus, unable to be randomly tested for illicit drugs. The number that sounded flimsy to begin with, was quickly shot down by the powerful and well-connected Eddie McGuire as well as by the CEO of the AFL Player’s Association, Paul Marsh who empathically proclaimed to anyone who would listen, “the numbers that have been quoted on radio and in the media are completely wrong.”

However, before the number was strongly refuted it caused mass outcry amongst the footy fraternity including by the always quotable Jeff Kennett who dubbed the policy “self-defeating,” “hypocritical” and “a sham.” Whereas, St Kilda champion Nick Riewoldt effectively called the policy a pisstake on 1116 SEN. He does not know the half of it.

Quite rightly, many were concerned and angry at the players who apparently exploited a serious condition such as mental illness, the effects of which are all too raw in the AFL community after the recent Majak Daw suicide attempt in December last year. However, the criticism also hit the AFL, whose system allowed mental illness to be so easily misused. It was premiership Kangaroo and mental health advocate, Wayne Schwass who put it best on 1116 SEN.

“So in regards to what (the AFL) needs to do, it frustrates me greatly that there (could) be players using (mental health) as an out-clause because that puts every other player who has legitimate mental health conditions in the same boat and they’re not in the same boat. These are really complex issues.”

While, the original figure of sixteen players is incorrect, clubs are aware and are genuinely frustrated by players who are rorting the system through faking mental health conditions to avoid a strike.

Don’t worry we will get to these mythical strikes shortly…

Concern for the manipulation of mental health was a genuine and meaningful part of the recent illicit drug debate and will form a core element of the AFL’s latest review of its so-called policy. However, that was not the only part of the exposure of this mental health “loophole” that saw many seeing red. The other reasoning was that this mental health clause compromises the integrity of the illicit drug policy.

Now, I’m not sure how to put this delicately. How do you best tell someone that the tooth fairy does not exist?

There is no illicit drug policy. I hate to break it to everyone. This “policy” is not worth the paper it’s written on, it’s not acted upon, and has never actually been practically used. It is also an open joke amongst AFL players – and clubs.

Clubs believe that players have been caught with three “strikes” and not revealed to the public. It should be remembered that a Collingwood player reportedly self-reported illicit drug use three times in 2012 and never even received a strike. In fact, up to six Collingwood players self-reported to the AFL medical officer in 2012 after a night of illicit drug taking. Perhaps providing some context to then Collingwood CEO Gary Pert’s raising of the alarm, that very same year, of “volcanic” behaviour amongst players, describing illicit drug use as the biggest issue in the game. The Australian even reported that a club had ten incidences of six players self-reporting in 2012. No strikes of course.

Self-reporting also worked a charm for twelve Sydney players who did the same after their 2012 premiership win. Hence, the supposed tightening of the self-reporting loophole in recent times that now only allows a player to self-report once without a strike going against their name. Not that that necessarily means anything anyway.

Moreover, former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou is on record as saying players have been banned for illicit drugs use without the public being informed, because “you don't have to be on two strikes to be forced to stop playing.” “Personal reasons” has been a common alibi, as has “hamstring.”

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Throughout the recent drug debate many have been squabbling about how the policy has changed from three strikes to two. Guys, it could be a one strike or thirty-eight strike policy, it’s all the same nonsense - the strikes are meaningless. They are completely fictitious and made up by the AFL on the run. The Sherlock Homeses of the football world need to stop declaring they have found the policy’s loophole, it’s Achilles’ heel, because it’s all heel!

The first time you “self-report” it does not earn you a strike, hair testing results do not count, if you are in drug rehabilitation you also cannot receive a strike, every time a player records a strike it is removed after four years, and moreover, the decks are seemingly scrubbed clean every time the policy is updated which will happen at the end of the current review.

Even if a player does test positive, excuses as “lame” as “my drink was spiked last night and I may have inadvertently taken drugs” are enough to see the policy abused according to a club official sourced by The Australian. Infamously, a Hawthorn player did not have to complete a drug test in 2007 as he said he was unable to urinate. This is not to suggest the player did anything untoward but only highlights the absurdity of the system and ease of which he can be manipulated.

Such manipulation was a trademark of the West Coast Eagles’ drug capitulation in the premiership-winning Ben Cousins era. Cousins has admitted that he was able to escape drug testers by being alerted to their presence by teammates already at the club, meaning he would then subsequently avoid training. Avoiding drug testers at the time carried a two-year ban. The penalty is now four-years, except for Lachie Whitfield apparently. Former West Coast player Daniel Chick also claimed that club staffers would hide certain players from drug testers, such was the horrendous drug culture that was present at the Eagles.

The other suspicious truth is the fact that in the history of the illicit drugs policy (in all its forms), the AFL has never both caught and punished anyone for anything. And it never will because it is not a legitimate policy.

Hang on, that’s not right, what about that Hawthorn bloke who got three strikes back in the day?

Yes, Travis Tuck was suspended for twelve matches but he was caught by the police unconscious in a car, not by the AFL.

How about Jake Carlisle from a few years back?

Jake Carlisle was caught by A Current Affair who released a video that Carlisle filmed himself on Snapchat. Carlisle then received a strike (cue gasp) and a two-game suspension (which is not written in any part of the policy).

Harley Bennell?

Again, caught by the media. Bennell was only punished when the Herald Sun published photos of Bennell allegedly preparing to inhale a white substance. He copped a three-match club ban… which is again interesting as a three-match suspension has never been a part of any illicit drugs policy.

I’ve got you now… Ben Cousins?

Ben Cousins never tested positive to anything, such is the thoroughness of the AFL’s illicit drug testing. He was only suspended for twelve months when his image was causing the AFL’s brand too much damage and was a pure example of the PR policy in action.

So, what about Shane Mumford in the off-season?

Another leaked video and another negotiated outcome. Mumford received a backdated voluntary strike. Of course, one strike is merely a suspended fine under the illicit drug policy, but he somehow also received a two-match suspension for PR reasons and not policy reasons.

Perhaps I am being cynical. Of course, the AFL would punish a player if he is caught. Caught by the media that is. And maybe by the police (if the media catches that). That’s when a player is suspended. Players are never suspended to carry out the policy (the punishments do not even fit the policy). It is purely to satisfy the optics.

The AFL’s illicit drug policy is not at all designed to catch players for taking illicit drugs. Why in God’s name would the AFL want that? It’s only used for something to point at if someone else catches them. When the drugs in sport debate ramps up as it did last week, it gives the AFL some moral high ground, especially when they throw in the word “voluntary.”

Did you know these brave men voluntarily agreed to this policy? Have they mentioned that enough? What an imposition that must have been. Has anyone ever asked why wouldn’t the players want to agree to a regime that protects, rather than punishes their illicit drug use?

So please spare us the futile debate about the integrity of the policy. Not that the general punters are to be blamed for it, the debate only exists because the AFL’s smoke and mirrors causes the public to completely misinterpret the real purpose of the policy; a policy that is not even real!

This “policy” is a protection for the AFL’s image. However, it also protects players. While, the AFL clearly has a vested interest in that, the goodwill of the AFL towards the players who need help should not be discounted. It is largely because of this, that despite the countless reviews, the AFL genuinely believes its approach towards illicit drug use has, on the whole, been a success.

Former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou, a staunch defender of the so-called illicit drugs policy, even claimed that two players could have died if it was not for the self-reporting aspect of the policy. If player welfare is at the heart of the AFL’s war on drugs then no doubt if lives have been saved, it’s been successful. The two players in question, received significant medical treatment and eventually resumed playing.

For the record, they never received a strike under the illicit drugs policy. That is the ideal template for what the AFL is trying to achieve.

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So, what new shape should the policy take as a result of this latest review?

It will not see a “no tolerance” model adopted, despite calls from AFL greats such as Nick Riewoldt who has dubbed illicit drug use in the AFL as “out of control.” However, it is difficult to judge the extent to which that is the case. What is certain is that the AFL understands that recreational drug use is so widespread that a no tolerance approach is unrealistic.

But will the revamped policy allay concerns by clubs that they are kept in the dark whether they have an illicit drug culture at their club? These fears were epitomised by Bulldogs President Peter Gordon’s comments in the Herald Sun that clubs deserved to know if players were “repetitively breaking the law by using illicit substances or were “grooming” younger teammates.

Will the new policy deliver greater transparency to clubs? Keep in mind transparency often means more of that pesky accountability. In this situation, accountability is no friend of the AFL.

What the new version of the illicit drug policy must now cater for is the serious threat of match-fixing to the integrity of the sport, that is becoming a part of the drugs in sport debate. As ASADA chief David Sharpe told the Herald Sun, “criminals are ­increasingly preying on sports stars to get inside information and influence games” and that “footballers taking ice, ­cocaine and ecstasy were ­vulnerable to bikies and organised criminals who either sold them the drugs, or saw them taking them.”

While, integrity was never designed to be a feature of the AFL illicit drugs policy, the integrity of the game itself must always be taken seriously.

It’s time to take it as seriously as the AFL takes its own image.

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