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.