Media off the Mark in Illicit Drug Reporting

By Michael Filosi

There has been a tremendous amount of hoopla recently surrounding the release of the AFL’s illicit drug testing results for the 2009 season.  The media latched onto the higher number of positive tests when compared with the previous year as an indication that the league’s illicit drug testing regime is ineffective, whereas the AFL trumpeted the overall decrease in the percentage of positive tests as proof that their system is working.  Is this a good result for the AFL, or is it a case of lies, damn lies and statistics?

Along with the number-play over the meaning of the test results, there are sections of the media that have heavily criticised the AFL’s purported “soft” stance when dealing with those who test positive to illicit substances, lambasting the fact that players are not “named and shamed” until testing positive three times over a four year period.   The chest beating that accompanies this moral outrage leaves me wondering whether they would be satisfied if those who tested positive were hanged, drawn and quartered by the AFL – or whether these members of the fourth estate would seek an even harsher penalty still.

To my mind, those who criticise the AFL’s decision to not name those found guilty miss the point of the testing regime entirely.  As AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou pointed out, “Our policy is unashamedly not about punishment – it’s about a player welfare model which is all about the health and welfare of our players.”  The AFL has put its neck on the chopping block by conducting and releasing the results of these tests.   It is the only sporting body in Australia which makes the results of its illicit drug testing public, and one of only three sports in Australia that conducts out of competition testing for illicit drugs.

As Demetriou makes clear the purpose of the AFL’s illicit drug testing is not to punish those found guilty, but to facilitate early counselling and support for those who test positive.   This progressive stance puts the playing group’s health and wellbeing ahead of the public’s desire to know the lurid details of which AFL players are illicit drug users.

A point which has largely gone unmentioned is that the AFL does not massage its testing regime to lower the likely incidence of positive results.  In fact, the AFL undertakes “target testing” of individuals who have previously tested positive.  Recovering drug addict Ben Cousins admitted on a recent television interview that he has been tested three times a week since returning to the AFL.  Were the AFL looking to fudge their figures, this thrice-weekly testing of a known ex-addict would surely be more lax.

Yes, there are flaws in the system, as there will be with any drug testing measure.  Cocaine and ecstasy pass out of one’s system over the course of 2-3 days, so if a player was to take a so called “party drug” one night and be tested a week later, it is unlikely he would register a positive result.  The recent charge by law authorities of Fremantle player Michael Johnson for possession of cocaine indicates that there are still illicit drug users in the AFL’s playing ranks.  However, in any sub-group of society which includes 17-35 year old males this is likely to be the case.

Forget AFL players using ice, it is time the media took a chill pill and gave the AFL a break over its illicit drug testing regime.

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