The Roar
The Roar


A change in policy won't help the AFL's drug situation

Karmichael Hunt took drugs because he wanted to, that's hard to prevent. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt
2nd July, 2015

13 years ago the AFL were issued with a warning that recreational drugs were commonplace at football clubs.

That warning came from ex-Sydney player Dale Lewis. He stated that up to 75 per cent of football’s elite level participants indulged in recreational drug use, that they knew how to use masking agents to beat the drug tests and were aware of how long each substance stayed in their systems.

The drugs of choice were apparently speed and ecstasy.

It was a startling revelation and one that probably warranted further investigation, whether you believed the figures that Lewis bandied about or not.

Instead Lewis was largely derided.

AFL boss Andrew Demetriou dismissed the allegations as being naïve, stupid and an insult to the football community and issued Lewis with a ‘please explain’ letter.

AFL Players Association CEO Rob Kerr fobbed the allegations off as mere rumour and innuendo.

ASADA denied players were regular users and pointed to the 500 tests it had carried out the previous year, none of which had been positive.


And the Sydney Swans expressed disappointment that their former star would say such unpalatable things.

Only Gary Lyon, just three years retired as a player himself, showed any degree of support for Lewis.

Although he added the disclaimer that he thought Lewis’ figure of 75 per cent was too high, he said that there was consistent talk of players trying ecstasy and speed.

The Age newspaper quoted Lyon as saying, “There’s enough talk around to say, ‘Let’s not sweep this under the carpet, let’s deal with this in a mature manner’.”

Unfortunately his was a lone cry in the dark as the rest of the football world covered their ears and screamed, “I can’t hear you!”

This all happened in the pre-season of 2002.

Fast forward 13 years and it seems Lewis has been somewhat vindicated. You can nit-pick about his claim of 75 per cent all you like, but even the most blinkered observers would have to admit that recreational drugs do exist within the world of professional football, just as they do in the wider community.


Since Lewis made his claims we have watched a number of West Coast Eagles players come to grief.

The Ben Cousins situation has been well-documented, and his fight with addiction and mental illness sadly continues to this day.

Daniel Kerr forged prescriptions for valium tablets, dabbled in methamphetamines and was recorded speaking to a convicted drug dealer on a police phone tap.

Chad Fletcher nearly died during a bender with teammates on an end of season trip to Las Vegas and has also been busted for cocaine possession.

Names from other clubs have come to light also.

Matthew Stokes (Geelong) and Michael Johnson (Fremantle) were both charged with cocaine possession in 2010 and Tom Liberatore (Western Bulldogs) was found unconscious and in possession of an ecstasy tablet in 2012.

Then there was Travis Tuck (Hawthorn) who became the first player to receive three strikes under the AFL drugs policy in 2010 while battling clinical depression.


At the moment we have Collingwood pair Lachie O’Keeffe and Josh Thomas awaiting judgement after testing positive to clenbuterol. While the substance is often used as a performance enhancer, helping to improve muscular strength and reduce body fat, some believe that the pair may have ingested it after it was used to lace or ‘cut’ an illicit drug.

And now we have the Gold Coast Suns situation, where ex-player and code hopper Karmichael Hunt claims he snorted cocaine with up to 12 of his teammates and a compromising photograph of Harley Bennell has been splashed across the pages of the nation’s newspapers.

This comes on top of a report by the Herald Sun newspaper which claims that 80 players tested positive to illicit substances over the pre-season.

The AFL is not covering its ears any more. Instead it is throwing its arms up in the air in frustration as its precious brand takes hit after hit after hit.

So, who is to blame for this spate of recreational drug use by AFL players?

It is easy to take pot shots at the AFL for this. While they were arrogant in the way they dismissed the Dale Lewis claims back in 2002, and their refusal to admit that there was a problem hindered the development of a proper policy on the matter, we must remember that hindsight is a wonderful thing and that footy at the time had not faced anything like this before.

Not publicly anyway.


And had the AFL been quicker on the uptake, what could they have really done anyway? Education programs are all well and good, but they won’t save everybody from the pitfalls of illicit drug use.

The young men who play football, as talented and as fit as they are, are still young men of the wider community – a community that unfortunately has a debilitating drug problem. It stands to reason that some of our players are going to slip through the net and dabble where they shouldn’t.

This is not the fault of the AFL or its clubs. It is not even the fault of a system that allows young men to be paid large sums of money and be hero worshipped by thousands of followers. It can’t be, because for every boy who transgresses, there are others who do not.

It is not even the fault of the current AFL drugs policy. Sure, a tougher stance might rid clubs of any ‘rogue’ elements earlier, but it will not stop the initial infraction. The world outside of football proves this. Fines, gaol terms and dismissal from employment are no deterrent. If they were our police and court system wouldn’t be flat knacker trying to rid the streets of the illicit drugs scourge.

No, the responsibility has to remain with the players themselves. It has become all too easy in today’s society to pass off blame to someone or something else. We can generalise and say that the culture at the Gold Coast, or the one that existed at the Eagles, was bad. And we’d probably be right.

But what we must also remember is that Karmichael Hunt dabbled in drugs because he wanted to. The Gold Coast players who partied with him did so because they wanted to. The Eagles players partied hard and lived life on the edge because they wanted to – at least initially.

And so it is in most cases.


It doesn’t mean we give up on them. They should be given every assistance to get themselves clean and to prove their worth. But we shouldn’t be surprised either, when some fall and can’t be brought back to the straight and narrow.

Playing the blame game helps no one. And as I said before, adjusting punishment will also have little effect. Whether it is a one, two or four-year ban matters not to someone who is suffering an addiction or is already under the influence of alcohol and not thinking straight to begin with.

There are no answers, if there were we wouldn’t have a problem.

We just have to improve the way we deal with the fallout and try and help as many of the boys who enter our system as best we can.

Unfortunately it may be fighting a losing battle.