A HIGH-PROFILE club flaunting unambiguous regulations. A large group of players – unwittingly, or not – using a banned substance to improve strength or aerobic capacity. A systematic and widespread abuse of the rules to which the competition had been hog-tied. Mandatory long-term suspensions imposed by an independent tribunal over which they had no influence.
For the AFL, and other major Australian sports, this was the nightmare scenario. The deep-seated reservation that caused the AFL, particularly, to squirm and prevaricate when, in 2005, the federal government demanded all Australian sports sign the World Anti-Doping Agency code.
Harry Houdini did not work as frantically to escape his bonds as the AFL worked to avoid signing with WADA. It claimed the WADA punishments for recreational drug use were excessive, and adopted its own three-strikes policy as an attempt to fulfil this obligation. It pleaded WADA's list of banned substances was arbitrary, and the program required costly in-house administration.
Inevitably, long after the NRL, cricket and the ARU had caved, the AFL was forced to put pen to paper. It was only when the federal government set a deadline for its threat to withdraw funding from any body that had not signed with WADA that the AFL rolled over.
This was a bitter pill for a competition used to making and administering its own rules and, consequently, presenting a fresh and highly marketable face.
The ill-conceived three-strikes policy has forced the AFL to deal furtively with both the detection and the consequences of an apparently rising tide of recreational drug use. This, AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou has admitted, means players have been secretly withdrawn from games while in rehabilitation. At the same time, the AFL is now, very publicly, subjected to the consequences of WADA's regime for the detection of performance-enhancing drugs. Something that could, notionally, wipe out an entire club.