The battle between image and integrity

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Thursday’s revelations regarding the extent of doping and fixing in Australian sport has left even the most cynical among us sick to the stomach.

Right or wrong, the Australian sporting public have always believed that our sporting culture has been built on an underlying sense of fair play.

The win-at-all-costs attitude that has caused amateur and professional sport in other countries to be riddled with cheats has long been attributed to the political situations or socio-economic status of different countries.

None of these reasons makes doping or fixing right, but it helped us understand where it was coming from and how to combat it. What we have missed is that the world has continued to change, yet our perceptions of it have lagged behind.

The advances in global communication have changed the landscape for criminals to be able to organise match fixing and spot fixing. This we have known for over a decade. The Cronje match fixing scandal showed us what was possible.

The misconception taken from that scandal was that Indian bookmakers were trying to fix cricket matches because of their interest in cricket.

Many sports governing bodies have allowed such lax assumptions to excuse their approach to the level of monitoring they have employed into the integrity of their respective sports.

This can’t be said regarding the issue of drugs in sport however. Particularly in regards to the NRL.

The game has had numerous incidents of players being caught taking both PEDS and recreational drugs, dating back to Scott Wilson in the early 1990s.

Again around the turn of the century a number of NRL players were caught doping and handed suspensions.

Through the next decade, there was barely a blip. A couple of players were suspended for PEDS, but nothing that would indicate a problem and the NRL were testing more.

Yet somehow they managed to miss a string of players who were abusing recreational drugs.

The Australian public became aware of Andrew Johns’ drug habit in 2007, when after being caught in possession he eventually came clean on national television.

The Australian sporting public however, greeted this news with the same apathy as Lance Armstrong’s confession. As simply a mea culpa of one of the worst kept secrets in sport.

I was in England when I first heard the rumours, which dates them as far back as early 2003 or prior. By 2004 enough credible sources had confirmed these rumours.

The ARU have revealed that they were aware of the issue when negotiating with Johns in 2004. In the years after that and prior to the 2007 incident, the fact would pop up randomly in emails and on posting boards to be greeted with an avalanche of “old news” responses.

Yet somehow we are led to believe that this information was not enough for the NRL administration to escalate the issue past the Knights’ standard drug testing.

No interviews or questioning, no increased testing. If the NRL did know, is it possible that they were not willing to investigate due to Johns’ status as one of the game’s brightest stars?

It is a bizarre example of the haphazard management of the game through that decade that gave us the Bulldogs being stripped of 37 competition points in 2002 for salary cap rorts. Yet, in the same year the Roosters were given no punishment for the same offence when it was exposed at the start of the finals series. Image over integrity.

The list could go on for the NRL, and I am sure you readers will have many of your own examples, from Brett Stewart being hung out to dry to banning players charged with drink driving for only two matches.

A stronger message was needed. If you drink and drive you will miss two footy games? How about fines, jail, loss of license, loss of job, injury, death, injuring and finally killing others.

The risk we are now facing is that given how widespread across all codes of sport the current scandal is, that the administrators will all to soon lose their stomach for a hard line on integrity.

Once they start seeing the effect that this has on their image and the subsequent effect on their code’s revenue, we will inevitably start to hear the softening spin that this is not a problem with their code, it is a problem in society and that they are just the innocent victims.

But this is not the case. We are all to blame.