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The Roar

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The hypocrisy of drug bans in a game backed by booze

Andrew Johns admitted to taking illegal drugs throughout his career - should we really ban players who get caught? (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)
Expert
7th July, 2016
79
2096 Reads

It was as esteemed and learned a panel of rugby league people as had ever been assembled. There were famous coaches, commentators, players, journalists. Men like Ray Warren, Wayne Bennett, Ian Heads and Roy Masters.

And over coffee and friands, they knocked the topic back and forth: who should be the eighth Immortal?

Fine cases were made for Norm Provan and Mal Meninga, both truly worthy. Great players, great leaders, great men.

Yet the general consensus was that Newcastle Knights halfback Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns was on another level again. The man was a freak, could win games with hands and heart and flashy feet. He won grand finals, Origins, Tests. Surely it would be our Holy Joseph who would enter the prestigious pantheon. 

Yet one man didn’t agree. 

Johnny ‘Chook’ Raper – Dragons champion, old boy, Immortal – had a one-word argument against Johns’s elevation. And when Johns’s name came up, Raper repeated his opposition using that one word.

“Drugs.”

According to Raper, Johns’ arrest in London for possessing an ecstasy tablet and subsequent mea culpa on television – in which he admitted to consuming ecstasy and other ‘party’ drugs throughout his brilliant career – should disqualify the former Knight from joining league’s hall of fame.

But the judges knew that Immortals aren’t judged on what they’ve done off the field. A man’s character is not a precondition, his off-field exploits are not counted among criteria. Johns could’ve injected all the heroin in Newcastle – or been the city’s beloved Lord Mayor – and it would not have mattered.

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The panel could judge the player only on his play. And Raper knew that too, and was perhaps wanting his opposition noted, or unable to discern between performance-enhancing drugs and those which enhance only a man’s perception of his prowess on the dance floor. 

And here we are with news that South Sydney Rabbitohs centre Kirisome Auva’a has allegedly breached the NRL’s testing policy for illicit and hazardous substances a second time. And while it won’t affect Auva’a’s chances of being an Immortal (should he, you know, suddenly become incredibly good), he is looking at the prospect of a 12-match ban. If he contravenes again he could be out for two years.

The NRL’s Illicit and Hazardous Drugs Testing Policy is based on a “player welfare model”. That means that the reason players are tested for speed, ecstasy, ice, ketamine, cannabis, cocaine, opiates, and synthetic versions of those drugs, is because the NRL wants them to be healthy. And that’s fair enough. The league does have a duty of care.

But a ban? For doing something many Australians do every weekend? For something that’s so prevalent that it’s effectively decriminalised?

If a player is unlucky enough to test positive – via a third-party drug lab employed by NRL and independent of the clubs – within the 48 hours after he’s been raving on the pingers or hoovering up Colombia’s national product (or whatever) and it’s the first time he’s tested positive, he’s given counselling, a mandatory treatment program and “monitored”, which means further targeted testing. That’s strike one.

If the player tests positive again, it’s a 12-match ban. And it’s made public.

Auva’a hasn’t tested positive, but he’s “contravened the rules as set out in the NRL policy”. That’s how come we’ve heard about it. And now Auva’a is faced with the “prospect of contract termination” along with further treatment, counselling and targeted testing.

If he strikes three he’s good as gone. Probable two-year ban and a meeting with the CEO or Chief Operating Officer who’ll “determine the appropriate sanction”.

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And Andrew Johns Kirisome Auva’a is not.

It seems the NRL wants a stick – being banned and publicly shamed – to go with a carrot – remaining in the NRL.

My question – and, granted, this may not be mainstream think – is why? Why ban the man? For sure some drugs are dangerous, and there should be all sorts of advice why you shouldn’t take them. The NRL does have a duty of care and player welfare is paramount. Who knows who’s cooking up the blasted things up or what’s in them? Say no to drugs, kids. 

But if every industry tested their employees this Monday morning, and sacked those who turned up a positive, we’d be running the country on a skeleton staff. There’d be countless fewer plumbers, nurses, lawyers, boilermakers, chefs, librarians (maybe not librarians), accountants, couriers and – yes, hell yes – journalists. It’s endemic in our society. It’s what a lot of people do.

In the United Nation’s 2014 World Drug Report, Australians were rated the biggest consumers of ecstasy in the world. In the world! We’re number one! We’re fourth for cocaine. The reality of illicit drug-taking in Australia is that it’s so common as to be normal.

Yes! No! I know! It’s not a healthy thing to do! Drugs – and that includes alcohol and nicotine – are like an emotional credit card. They give and then they take away with interest. But why ban Auva’a for doing something Johns did, and that so many other Australians do every weekend with apparent impunity? 

Sure, give him all the counselling and education and monitoring he can eat. Get in the man’s ear. Mentor him. But why ban him from playing? If it’s not affecting his play – his work – how much should an employer be able to delve into a citizen’s personal business?

People will argue that train drivers and pilots and plant operators are tested, and they can make that case. People will argue that illegal drugs are illegal, you idiot, and that’s just it. That’s why Auva’a should be banned. Rub him out for life! 

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But here’s a fact: a footy player taking an ecstasy tablet on a Saturday night – or even the popular and completely legal cocktail of sleeping potion Stillnox and caffeine drink Red Bull – is doing far less damage than a player knocking back a legal, even socially applauded, dozen schooners.  

The relative harm illicit drugs do compared to that caused by alcohol – which isn’t on the banned list, isn’t tested for, is the drug of choice for millions of Australians – is chalk and cheese. Alcohol is by far the worst drug in Australia.

According to health journal WebMD, a study in 2010 undertaken by neuropharmacologist David Nutt of Imperial College London, rated 20 different drugs “on a scale that takes into account the various harms caused by a drug”. Drugs were rated on the harm they drug cause individuals and harm they cause greater society.

Alcohol topped the pops with a 72. 

Next up was heroin (55), crack (54) and crystal meth (33). Ecstasy, the drug of choice for party people in the Sin City of Sydney, rated a 9. Alcohol – sponsor of this greatest game of all, rugby league – was rated three times as harmful as cocaine.

To be fair, I’m not completely sure of the solution, or if there even is one. And the NRL is doing its best.

Drugs, legal and illegal, are prevalent in Australian society. And over-consumption causes addiction, disfunction and death. But the illegal ones – those tested for by the NRL – are, according to experts, less harmful than the legal ones that sponsor rugby league. 

Someone should assemble a learned panel to discuss it.

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