Drugs in sport: Spare a thought for the players

With the controversial drugs scandal currently involving the Essendon footy club (EFC), there has been numerous media coverage and reports, mostly speculating about or criticizing the club and various staff employed at or running the club. But for all the media reports, there is one critical point to be taken out of all this that I have not seen reported anywhere and doubt I will. There is such current and growing pressures and expectations on the modern day player in every aspect, from the way they conduct themselves off the field to the physical fitness, strength, power and athletic capabilities required. This also extends to the gluttony of team meetings, recovery sessions and requirements they are to fulfill, as well as the extremely high level they are expected to perform at each weekend. These are all, I believe, underlying reasons we are seeing damage both to the players and the game. In light of all this, I think we need to spare a thought for the Essendon players.

This scandal is a classic example of the current pressures placed on AFL players. Even if some players at the Bombers are found to have taken something illegal or performance enhancing, I say don’t attack them  or judge them based on the findings, as it is largely a by-product of the expectation now being heaped on footballers. They are constantly being pushed to ‘take their game to another level’, a popular phrase among football journalists, experts and coaches. As football is a career and source of income for all these men, and for some their families as well, they will do anything to gain an edge over their competition.

As we know sports scientists have become more prevalent at clubs and are hired with the aim of helping the players’ gain that little bit extra over the rest of their competition. This has led many sports scientists to ‘toe the line’ with what is legal and acceptable and what is not in order to improve player performance, as has been admitted with Stephen Dank at Essendon. When you are an AFL player in what is supposed to be a professionalenvironment where you can trust the processes in place, and you have qualified professionals telling you that ‘taking this or injecting that’ will improve your performance and is legal and within the rules, what would you expect from a highly competitive athlete trying to get the absolute best out of themselves and improve performance. The game has now become so ruthless with players in fear of being spat out of the system if they don’t meet the expectation and standard required on a full time basis, day in, day out.

These unrealistic pressures are killing players, especially young players just entering the system. It may be easier for older seasoned veterans who are comfortable and know what it takes to get through, but even then it would still have to take a toll on them with the growing professionalism of AFL football. Young kids are expected to be extremely professional and meet so many requirements at such a young age, they either turn into robots, drop out or get spat out because they can’t handle it, go against the grain, get disciplined and then turn into a robot, or get delisted for their new reputation as a ‘troublemaker’ or ‘wildchild’. It not only affects their football, it also affects their lives, something I can relate to from personal experience within the football system and experiencing the pressures and expectations that come with it.

That’s why it’s refreshing to see players such as Stevie J down at the Cats who do their own thing a little bit and don’t entirely run by the system. I’m not at all suggesting players don’t follow the rules or work hard, because I’m a big advocate for both hard work and intensity and getting everything out of yourself that you can. But each individual is different and it’s more so about players being able to have a life that football is a part of, and it’s ok if it’s chosen as the major aspect of their life, rather than it being so serious with such high expectations that players are like emotionless ‘robots’ not dissimilar to working in a factory production line.

Yes Essendon players may have taken substances which are performance-enhancing. And yes this may mean they broke the rules. But that’s what happens in an environment where pressure and expectations are immense, everything feels constantly cutthroat and on the line, along with the sports scientists who are supposed to act professionally throwing all types of supplements at players and doing everything they can under the sun without getting caught out. Just remember why all these players first started playing football and why their goal was to play AFL. Because they love footy and it is a passion for every single one of them.

So, after all that, before we accuse and criticize players and stamp them with bad reputations, how about looking at the real issue to come out of all this. We’ve got to take a look at the game and the toll it’s taking on the players with its constant, growing, unrelenting pressure and expectations, before it cuts the careers short of so many promising young men. AFL footballers are also humans, keep that in mind before judging the Bombers.


  1. Liam Quin says

    An interesting take, Brandon.

    While I agree that the increasing pressures of professional sport are absurd, I cannot feel sympathetic to the players as easily as you.

    As a person, they should be responsible for their own body and what goes in to it. Being injected with anything (including legal medications) should be a rarity and should be avoided where possible.

    To permit the systematic and secretive injection of supplements into your own body is very questionable behaviour. Saying you were submitting to this program because you were told to by a ‘qualified sports scientist’ is irresponsible and unhealthy.

    My opinion is that the AFL should come down very hard on the Essendon Football Club and its players for bringing the game into disrepute. It should be made abundantly clear that looking for ‘improvements’ by injecting anything is not sportsmanlike. It should be made clear to players that they are not soldiers but people who have ultimate control of the methods they use to improve.

    As an aside, any supplement that can be ingested is usually no more effective when injected. A supplement that is only effective when injected, is usually used trigger the release of hormones (HGH, EPO, etc.). The message? We shouldn’t be injecting supplements! (Read more at http://theconversation.com/essendon-faces-a-doping-investigation-but-what-are-peptides-12042)

  2. Brandon Erceg says

    Yeah I do agree with you on player’s not allowing themselves to just be injected that a profesional sports scientist telling you ok is no excuse.
    I guess the point im trying to make, and it would be more so for younger players or players who feel their spot under the team is always under question, that there is such pressure and expectation now that players get caught up in it all and try to do anything just to get the best out of themselves and stay on a list. It leads to rational decision making going out the door and I think the AFL need to have a good hard look at what the game is doing to the players. If it wasnt so cutthroat and the pressure and expectation not so high or unrealistic, players may realise theres more to life than football and these things wouldn’t happen.
    But in saying that I understand professional sport is a high pressure environment and it is partly what you sign up for, but first and foremost it always starts out as a love and passion.
    I think if the investigations prove players and staff at essendon guilty, then by all means they need to be punished for their actions. But I just hope the AFL doesn’t hand out punishments and say ‘look at us, we’re making a stand here and stamping it out’. They need to look at what the causes may be and this is where I think we need to spare a thought for the players and the unrelenting pressure and expectations they face which I spoke about.

  3. Brandon, I can agree that the biggest penalty should be to the Essendon Football Club if the allegations are proved. But how do you put a meaningul penalty on a club? Disqualify officials? Fines? Deduct premiership points?
    The other issue is that the success of performance enhancing drugs (Lance Armstrong/East German female athletes/big Essendon midfielders) reduce many other ‘ethical’ athletes to forgotten afterthoughts.
    I get your point that it is very hard for a naive young athlete (or a waning older one desperately trying to get another high paying contract) to give truly INFORMED CONSENT.
    So we should not judge their understandable human frailty and ambition, but we should penalise it severely to stop the cancer spreading and unfairly disadvantage others.

  4. Brandon Erceg says

    That’s a hard one to answer because in giving a penalty you have to think about what is going to be the best penalty for the club itself, but then I think you have to think about what is going to be the best punishment for the players to ensure that there is a less likely chance of it happening again.

    I don’t think it necessarily reduces how other athletes are remembered because when proven guilty these ethical athletes are then held in even higher regard for not taking performance enhancing drugs.

    My personal point of view is that you have to disqualify or get rid of officials or players who are central to the issue because it is very hard to solve the problem if you don’t eliminate the cause.

    But I think your last sentence sums it up well. The AFL need to hand out punishment but they need to also look at. Issues such as the pressures/expectations placed on players. As well as worrying with and dealing with the central problem, they need to deal with the outside causes aswell, which is where I think they may fall down

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