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Why players don't strike out

ON AT least two occasions, the AFL has been forced to respond to rumours about well-known players recording a third positive test to illicit drugs, the supposed ''third strike''.

The media arousal typically lasts about an hour or two before the cold shower. ''Not true,'' says a weary AFL media department, pointing out that any third strike would be announced immediately.

The rumour is invariably nonsense. Players don't reach three strikes and an automatic suspension for two reasons. The first is that the AFL policy has been pretty successful in reducing the rate of players using illicit drugs, and the players themselves are increasingly mindful of the consequences - when they aren't drinking excessively.

The second, virtually unknown, reason that player X is unlikely to register a third strike is that the player in drug treatment, or rehabilitation, isn't subject to testing by the AFL. He will only be tested by those treating him and the results obviously aren't counted against him. They are between him and the clinician, who treats the player as he sees fit.

Furthermore, if a player has a serious drug problem and isn't responding to treatment or addressing his problem, the AFL doctors may not let him play. How this can be disguised is unclear - it's possible he will be stood down with depression (which was a co-factor with the game's only three-strike player, Hawthorn's Travis Tuck) or an unspecified injury/illness.

Consider then what a player has to do to earn that third positive test or strike. He would have to test positive twice, which only a small minority of AFL footballers have managed, since they are referred to the club doctor for counselling/treatment after one positive. ''Three or four'' are at the plate on two strikes today, according to AFL medical director Peter Harcourt, adding that the number was shrinking. Of the six positives revealed yesterday by the AFL, none were second strikes.

Following his second slip, the two-strike player would have to go into rehab, receive treatment over a period of weeks or months - during which time he couldn't register a third positive. It is up to the clinician to determine when his treatment is complete. There is no specific time-frame. In order to strike out, he would have to suffer a post-treatment relapse and have it detected.

It's far from impossible if the player is popping pills or snorting regularly, but, in effect, it would mean that the treatment has failed in the short term, and that the player has a serious drug problem. The AFL has no evidence today that there is any player in a severe Ben Cousins-like situation.

Important, too, is the fact that the player would have to record three strikes within a four-year time-frame. The strikes are scrubbed after four years, as if they were demerit points for speeding.

To those who have an uncompromising ''zero tolerance'' view of illicit drugs, who want the key thrown away, the AFL policy will strike them as lenient on the decadent player and that the system is designed to avoid a three-strike circus.

The AFL, however, has slavishly followed the medical model for treating players, which is more about getting them over the problem than punishment. The key point is that the player is referred for treatment to an outside clinician, not the AFL's doctors or club doctor (who alone are permitted to know about positive tests).

Once the player is in the hands of an outside expert, that clinician will act in what he thinks is the player's best interest; at this point, the treatment has been outsourced, in the same way that the player would see a specialist for hip surgery (but without anyone, bar the club and AFL doctors, knowing).

Associate professor John Fitzgerald, of the University of Melbourne, a former acting chief executive of VicHealth who advised the AFL on alcohol policy, said last night that the AFL's drug policy ''does rely heavily on the autonomy of the clinician'', which was best practice in drug treatment.

The other, oft-forgotten truth, about the illicit drugs policy is that it's entirely voluntary, in the sense that the AFL Players Association has agreed to testing out of competition. A more punitive system wouldn't be accepted by the players.

It has no relationship to the official match-day testing for performance-enhancing drugs by the World Anti-Doping Agency, although the AFL reckons that its own testing regime for illicit drugs has reduced the chances of positive tests on match days, of which there has been none in recent years.

So when you next hear an internet or radio rumour about an impending third strike for a renowned player, consider what he'd need to have done. Or failed to have done.

34 comments

  • There's a third reason noone gets to three strikes - the AFL doesn't want to

    Commenter
    Benny
    Location
    Subi
    Date and time
    June 22, 2012, 7:07AM
    • Benny, I would argue that the ONLY reason is that the AFL doesn't want to....

      Commenter
      Stavros
      Location
      PMelb
      Date and time
      June 22, 2012, 7:55AM
    • And why would they want players to strike out?

      Commenter
      Laki
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 22, 2012, 9:52AM
    • @laki. To prevent others like Tucky and Cuzzy from winding up where they did!! Let's be honest, we all know the playing group is a reflection their demographic. The policy is designed to protect the brand more than the individual. But due to such media scrutiny, it's IMPOSSIBLE for the AFL to allow the number of positive tests to increase!!

      Commenter
      Semi pro
      Location
      Afl land
      Date and time
      June 22, 2012, 11:17AM
    • If the AFL didn't want anyone to know - then, they'd do what the NRL and Cricket Australia do and NOT report their results. Or, like the FFA and ARU and not bother to start with!!!

      To carry on about AFL consiparcy of silence type theories is a bit silly isn't it when you consider the AFL are the ones who pushed ahead with this policy, and whilst the NRL and Cricket Australia finally adopted similar policies (after the politicisation of the topic during the later months of the Howard Govt) - - you need to recognise that the AFL is the ONLY code that actually reports is results.

      Commenter
      Michael C
      Location
      Melb
      Date and time
      June 22, 2012, 2:58PM
  • Since it is not in the AFL's interest for a player to register three strikes, the AFL pretends it can't count to three. Problem averted.

    Commenter
    Truman
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    June 22, 2012, 7:43AM
    • I dont believe an essay was needed on that - i think its well understood and a policy that should be applauded. Illicit drug use isnt performance enhancing - it is well known that addiction is an illness associated with mental health. Surely the best for the player is remaining anonymous (from the media/public) in all cases (even after 3 strikes).
      You seem disappointed that you(the media) dont get the chance to hang these players up by the noose. - what benefit does that bring?

      Commenter
      POINT
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      June 22, 2012, 7:46AM
      • I'm sorry but that is absolute rubbish. Using an illicit drug does not automatically make you an addict. An idiot, yes but not an addict. If a footballer is stupid enough to 1) use drugs and 2) get caught then they deserve to be treated like any other person. If they are found to have a drug addiction then, yes, they should be provided with all the help possible but using cocaine or speed once doesn't not make you an addict. These blokes should be treated like any other person.

        Commenter
        Spacks
        Date and time
        June 22, 2012, 9:22AM
      • Ok Spacks, so if we are going to treat them like "any other person" then we should stop testing them for illicit drugs immediately.

        There are not too many other jobs where you are required to give samples ANYTIME/ANYWHERE on request.

        Commenter
        Jez
        Location
        Melb
        Date and time
        June 22, 2012, 11:12AM
      • I couldn’t agree with you more, Point. Who benefits by hanging these players out to dry in the public arena? The player certainly does not, nor does the public, their club, their family or opposition clubs.
        I for one believe the AFL have been exemplary in their handling of illicit drug use in a professional sport and sets a standard for other sports to aspire to.

        Commenter
        Nygell
        Date and time
        June 22, 2012, 12:21PM

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