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Illicit Drugs in the AFL - There's no Review, only a Retreat

On May 1, 2003 United States President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” and that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed” apparently bringing an end to America’s post-September 11 “War on Terror.” Since then, there have been approximately 200,000 documented deaths in the Iraq War.

And so goes AFL Chairman Richard Goyder, who this week proclaimed that “we (the AFL) are winning the war on drugs.”

Dear, oh dear.

On a completely different scale, the AFL’s very own “war” may also go down a troubling path.

In an extraordinary interview in The West Australian, the man who tops Gillion McLachlan as having the most powerful position in the game, Richard Goyder attempted to open up about the AFL’s review of the illicit drugs policy. But instead all he did was open himself up to criticism.

Two weeks ago, it was confirmed that the AFL is reviewing its illicit drugs policy after an onslaught of public and media criticism, with the mental health element of the policy the review’s key focus. This is likely a result of the increasing speculation, awareness and concern at club level of players manipulating the policy through citing mental health issues. Under the AFL’s controversial policy, players who declare as having mental health issues are exempt from receiving a strike for illicit drug use.

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This latest of a long line of loopholes in the illicit drug policy has sparked outcry from past players such as Nick Riewoldt, and mental health advocates including Wayne Schwass and Jeff Kennett. But never fear, because Richard Goyder claims that absolutely no players are using this loophole at all.

Goyder also went as far as to say that the loophole does not even exist as it was closed “a few years ago.” Unfortunately for Goyder, the AFL already confirmed to the ABC (27th Feb) that the loophole still exists stating “it will review a loophole which allows players with mental health issues to avoid suspension for illicit drug use.” The direct contradiction here is telling, especially since it is about a subject that the AFL as a whole should be on the same page about. But to be fair to Goyder, it is hard to keep track of a policy that does not appear to be tangibly real, but rather seems to exist only in the AFL’s messaging.

It is not exactly reassuring to note that the boss of the league is completely oblivious to, or purposely incorrectly stating information in regard to the situation, and is seemingly unable to stay on message about a significant policy pertaining to mental health; an issue that the AFL repeatedly claims is the game’s biggest. Furthermore, if Goyder is actually unaware that the loophole still exists and that players may be manipulating his illicit drugs policy via citing mental health issues, what exactly is the AFL reviewing then?

Have Richard Goyder’s comments indicated that there is no serious review planned?  

It was merely a way to retreat from the ongoing commentary. To pretend that something is actually being done, so we can all move on to the next topic. Did someone say twilight Grand Final?

Is the proposed review a PR fabrication, much like the policy itself, as I wrote about earlier this month? Sure, if someone remembers, the AFL may announce some small, insignificant changes at the end of the year, but if the policy is never actually changed and tightened then what is the point?

Back to the “war”. How is anyone supposed to trust that the AFL is “winning” this thing? There is a serious lack of transparency surrounding the issue, which is often swept aside under the banner of ‘player privacy’.

The AFL has not released the illicit drug testing figures since 2013, the year in which the Australian Crime Commission concluded that between seven to nine AFL clubs, including Collingwood, were “vulnerable” to illicit drugs, and hence, organised crime.

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The last we heard was that in 2013, there were fifteen positive tests – and no punishments of course. However, we learned the previous year in 2012, that it was difficult to take these results seriously. This is because not included in the 26 positive tests for 2012, were a dozen self-reporting Swans after their grand final triumph. Also, not included were two players from Melbourne based clubs who were admitted to rehab for ice addiction. That may seem extreme but it was not so long ago that the AFL sent at least twenty-six footballers to confidential drug rehabilitation between 2005 and 2007. Not a strike between them.

The positive tests increased in 2014, but the AFL did not release the figures for confidentiality’s sake. This is not unreasonable, but means it is difficult to trust a league that is now not even prepared to release even the carefully manipulated figures of the past. What is known is that in the pre-season of 2016, when the off-season hair-testing results were at the forefront of public football discussion, many clubs were shocked at the significant increase in positive tests.

So, as this victorious war rages on, the rules and reviews blur and change with every public statement, the AFL directive is clear.

You can mention the war… just not the facts.

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