THE AFL does not, never has and never will condone illicit drug use. I wanted to say that straight out because people who have watched, listened to or read some of the commentary over the past week could be excused for thinking the AFL doesn’t take the issue of illicit drug use seriously.
We take it so seriously that the AFL established an illicit drug policy in 2005 and today we remain one of only two sports in the country that tests its players out of competition.
To put that in perspective, some 88 other sports don’t have an out-of-competition illicit drug testing regime. The AFL does. Our message is very clear – the AFL abhors illicit drug use and we want to do what we can to tackle an issue that causes enormous grief right across the community.
Illicit drug use is a massive issue across society and AFL footballers are part of society and subject to the same temptations as other people their own age. But they are tested for illicit drugs on match days (in competition) by ASADA under the World Anti-Doping Authority regime and if found positive they receive a two-year ban.
No AFL player has ever tested positive for illicit drugs on match day. But we do know that some AFL footballers use such drugs at other times because we test them out of competition and then release the statistical results.
In February this year, after the testing regime had run for two years, we announced the results again and told the media and the public that we have recorded 28 positive tests over two years. Three players had tested positive twice.
One positive test is one too many, but if there is good news it is that every player that has tested positive has been referred to the appropriate counselling and treatment to help them actually deal with the issue and change their behaviour. We don’t want them to hide their problem. We want them to deal with it and to receive the support they need.
It’s important to remember that Justice Murray Kellam in the Supreme Court last year accepted the argument that a policy that provided treatment for players to overcome illicit drug use out of competition was more important than the need for the public to know the names of those players.
It’s also important to remember that this policy, which has been attacked by so many commentators but praised by so many drug prevention experts, is one that the players volunteered to take part in. They wanted to ensure that their teammates received treatment if they had made the wrong choices. They supported the system because it educates and prevents illicit drug use but also – where such drug use occurs – it takes immediate action to ensure that those players are referred to counselling and treatment.
The AFL could have pretended there wasn’t a problem and left it alone, but that’s not leadership. We became aware some players were using illicit drugs out of competition and we have tackled it. The result is that there are a number of players who have had a significant intervention in their life that has resulted in them seeking and receiving treatment.
We know there are differing views on our system. It is a complex area with no simple solutions but our policy was developed to tackle a real problem in the way that the experts in this field said was the most effective in changing behaviour.
Yesterday Victoria’s Chief Commissioner of Police, Christine Nixon, supported the AFL system and its focus of seeking to refer players into treatment. As the Chief Commissioner pointed out, if police pick up someone who uses illicit drugs, the most likely outcome is that they are referred to treatment and counselling – just like AFL players.
Police too recognise that counselling and treatment is more effective in changing behaviour than the simplistic response of naming and shaming.
We do not and will not support a name-and-shame policy ahead of treatment and dealing with the problem.
The events of the past week show exactly why identifying players with problems doesn’t work – there are some in the media who would put a story ahead of the welfare of patients, who are in treatment for a serious illness.
Today this issue will be back in court and the AFL will continue to support any action that keeps doctor-patient medical records private, as they should be.
The real issue over the past week was – and remains – the way that a patient’s private medical records with a doctor were taken from a doctor’s office, sold and then published.
Certainly the scramble to try and reveal details has shown little respect for the two players who are undergoing treatment and counselling.
We thank the Victoria Police for their work in charging two people with theft in relation to those documents.
The question for the AFL this week has been: Are you doing anything to combat illicit drugs? The answer is yes, and we will continue to do so.
AFL players recognise they are role models and I thank them for their support of their system and the way they continue to be held to high – sometimes impossibly high – standards that means they can never make a mistake.
The question for some in the media is whether they think their actions over the past week would meet that same high standard.
Andrew Demetriou is chief executive officer of the AFL.