Loopholes and public scrutiny: The AFL’s recreational drug problem

Drug use isn’t new to the AFL.

The use of performance enhancing drugs in the sport is well-documented, with obvious cases including the Essendon Football Club. But the league seems to have an even more worrying drug problem: the recreational use of drugs, namely cocaine.

Many will be familiar with Ben Cousins’ story. Cousins got caught up in a whirlwind of recreational drug use, which enhanced his performance but simultaneously ruined his life and ended his career on a sour note.

The former West Coast and Richmond player is just one of a growing pool to succumb to a culture of recreational drug use within footy and it’s clear the issue needs urgent attention.

The list of known recreational drug-taking incidents within the AFL is extensive.

Sam Murray was offered a suspension after testing positive for cocaine; Brayden Crossley also tested positive; Shane Mumford was videoed snorting cocaine and the evidence was subsequently leaked; and former Gold Coast and Fremantle player Harley Bennell faced a similar scenario.

Additionally, Collingwood has a well-known and widely reported problem with its players doing drugs in the off-season. Past premiership player and Brownlow Medallist Dane Swan has admitted to experimenting with recreational drugs during his career and now even feeds into his partying and drug-taking persona as part of his post-playing career identity.

Given the prevalence of recreational drug use in the AFL, obvious questions arise around whether or not this is a cultural problem for the league and quite possibly the sport in general.

After all, recreational use of illicit drugs has been a prominent issue in local level leagues around the country for some time.

Understanding why the use of these illicit drugs is so common within the sport bodes for a tough task. But within the AFL it may be easier to draw logical conclusions.

Access to drugs, including cocaine, isn’t a barrier for players, their status and notoriety being much greater than that of the ‘average Joe.’

As the Herald Sun’s Jon Anderson says, for AFL players “the drink-card days (at night clubs) are old hat, replaced by an assortment of party drugs of which Amy Winehouse would be proud.”

The consumption of these drugs at clubs or parties also often involves moving into ‘celebrity booths’ or ‘private rooms’ where, according to Anderson, “cocaine or ecstasy are readily available.”

While this doesn’t mean every high-profile AFL player will pick up a drug habit just because they can, players seeking refuge from the ever-suffocating life on an AFL footballer may be more susceptible and likely to engage in drug-taking as an escape route.

This is somewhat understandable. Players have been vocal about the pressures of the career, including Melbourne star Max Gawn claiming that “AFL players are under more stress and scrutiny than ever before”.

As it stands, the AFL as a business is non-stop and unforgiving. One would be naive to think this doesn’t have a hand in players’ seemingly above-average drug-use and mental health issues.

The AFL’s policies to address drug-taking don’t help the situation, and need to be revisited to deal with the phenomena.

It’s become apparent that there are various loopholes in the AFL’s illicit drugs policy. With only two tests each year, it’s easier that it should be for players to avoid getting caught.

Furthermore, there’s the self-reporting loophole through which players can admit to the possible use of drugs before being tested and escape with just a slap on the wrist and counselling, no suspension.

Finally, there’s the much-discussed mental illness loophole, wherein if a player has tested positive more than once they can be pardoned a suspension if they are diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

This is a sensitive subject and has resulted in a grey area for determining whether or not players have mental health problems or if they are exploiting the loophole.

The league’s drug policy also works on the notion of three strikes. Strike one is a non-public suspension and a small fine, strike two sees the player face a four-match suspension and a fine with both made public, and strike three is a 10-match suspension and hefty fine.

Easily exploited loopholes and a lack of hard-line punishments have caused much upset.

Although he didn’t agree with former coach Grant Thomas’ assertion there was a recreational drug problem at the Saints a decade ago, St Kilda legend Nick Riewoldt has said the current drug policies have created a free-for-all situation with almost no ramifications which is now out of control. He said, “blokes are doing it because the system allows them to get away with it.”

It’s hard to disagree with Riewoldt and it’s clear the AFL desperately needs to review its policy.

Equally pressing is the AFL’s obvious need for a culture shake-up.

Players are put under increasing pressure and stress from clubs and fans, leaving the door open to a wealth of mental health issues and the lure of recreational drugs.

The AFL – and its clubs – must assess this.

Not only are players facing intense scrutiny and pressure for how they play, they can’t even have one beer without facing backlash from media and the public and perhaps even a warning from their club.

This is a huge contrast to what players were allowed to do just a couple decades ago.

Could the non-stop and high-pressure business of the AFL and its clubs – with seemingly little room for relief – be behind players seeking solace in drugs? Could it be the reason why close to half of the Collingwood side felt it necessary to do coke as soon as the off-season hit?

It certainly isn’t a difficult leap to make and with the number of players suspended for drug-use each season seemingly only on the rise, it’s high time the AFL review both its drug policy and wider culture to work to stamp out the issue in the long term.

Image by Liam Fiddick

sports editor