Drugs, sport, hypocrisy and media hysteria

November 23, 2007

This year there has been a series of drug-related scandals in Australia's two major football codes, the Australian Football League (AFL) and the National Rugby League (NRL). The scandals have nothing to do with "performance enhancing" drug, or even anything to do with the game of football at all. These scandals have been beaten up by a media circus, which has itself fed a frenzy of moral hypocrisy, led by the (now-former) federal Coalition government, with the "me-too" Labor Party chiming in.

The two biggest scandals have centred on West Coast Eagles superstar Ben Cousins in the AFL, and Newcastle Knights superstar Andrew Johns in the NRL. Johns — who retired earlier this year — publicly "confessed" to being a regular user of drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine (although rarely during footy season). Cousins missed most of the AFL season after he sought rehabilitation for addiction to methamphetamine and/or cocaine, according to media reports.

The highpoint of the media-fuelled scandals came on November 19 when the AFL dragged Cousins — who had been sacked by the Eagles after a wrongful arrest for possessing Valium (a legal drug) after the football season had finished — before a kangaroo court, charged with "bringing the game into disrepute". He was found guilty and banned from the game for one year, after which the AFL will reconsider whether to let him back into the competition or not.

In order to avoid being banned for life, Cousins was forced to publicly "confess" to his drug problem and apologise. He obliged, offering one small defiance, a comment that "Contrary to media reports, I am a lot further down the track in my rehabilitation than has been reported" — a reference to the ceaseless stream of lurid media stories about alleged ongoing drug use.

Cousins has never tested positive to drugs. He has never been found guilty of a crime in a court of law, nor has he violated any specific AFL rule — hence the vagueness of the charge against him and the fact the evidence considered by the AFL has not been revealed. In effect, he has been found guilty of generating negative headlines and sacrificed to the political demands of right-wing politicians beating the "tough on drugs" drum. In a November 24 Melbourne Age comment piece, Tim Lane highlighted the ridiculous nature of the penalty, pointing out that not only has it been levied for "behaviour that has nothing to do with sporting conduct", but that this is the biggest penalty penalty for any offence in more than 75 years of the competition.

The Howard government used the occasion of Cousins' wrongful arrest to repeat its push for the AFL to toughen its policy on illicit drug use. "Anyone who thinks that the AFL is doing enough in relation to drugs in their sport — in view of the events that have just happened — is kidding themselves", then-federal sports minister George Brandis said, according to an 18 October article in the Age. Then-PM John Howard was quoted urging the courts to be "as tough as possible" on illicit drug use.

Predictably, ALP leader Kevin Rudd jumped on the bandwagon, calling for sports administrators to "get their act together", and threatening that unless competitions got tougher, an ALP government might impose a harsher national policy on all sports.

The media has also been beating the "tough on drugs" drum. Sydney's Daily Telegraph used Cousins' arrest to call for a crackdown on illicit drugs, opining in an editorial that: "It is time we stopped lionising drug abusing sports 'stars' such as Ben Cousins and Andrew Johns."

Meanwhile, Age sports commentator Greg Baum pontificated that Cousins had only himself to blame for his downfall adding: "It is hard to think that there has been a greater git in the history of Australian sport." (Does Baum expect us to believe he has never heard of Shane Warne?) When Cousins first sought treatment for addiction, former player and coach Robert Walls went so far as to declare the Eagles "evil".

The argument is circular. It is said Cousins' career has been potentially "destroyed by drugs" and that this shows the inherent "evilness" of illicit drugs. What this ignores is that his career has only been halted, and potentially finished, by disciplinary measures because society currently prohibits certain drugs and the media and politicians whip up moral hysteria about them. This policy of selective prohibition is not even a century old and has been a universal failure, merely making those substances prohibited more dangerous and under the control of organised crime, and condemning those who develop addictions to having their problem treated as a legal, rather than a medical, issue.

Cousins clearly has a serious illness. However, if his addiction was to alcohol, he would not be subjected to the same punishment or media pillorying, and the only barrier to his participation in the competition would be sufficient health. Indeed, he may even be hailed a hero in a culture that "lionises" alcohol abuse. If only Cousins and Johns were renowned for downing 50-plus cans of beer on a flight between Australia and England, as certain famous cricketers are (or, like one former Australian PM, held the world record for downing a yard glass of beer).

The issue is about more than the drug habits of a couple of highly paid sportspeople. It is part of a deeply reactionary agenda that seeks to extend the control of the state over people's personal lives, and further erode the rights of working people. There is a drive by employers in a range of industries to win the right to carry out drug and alcohol tests on their workers. Public hysteria over footballers putting the same poisons into their body as a fair chunk of the population do, makes this drive easier. Evidence came on November 18 when the Howard government threatened to quarantine welfare payments of those found guilty of possessing illicit drugs.

Beyond the manufactured glamour associated with being successful at booting an oval-shaped ball around a field, football players remain workers. They are paid to do a job for their employer — the club they play for, which in turn is represented by the employers' association (which is what the AFL and NRL amount to). This is why the players organise into their own trade unions — players' associations.

While the most successful footballers are well paid, many do it tough. It may sound great to be paid to kick a footy around, but, in this age of highly professionalised sports, players are essentially the property of their club, with extreme demands placed on their bodies and increasingly draconian restrictions on their personal lives. Players are expected to turn themselves into finely-tuned machines, but their careers can be ended suddenly through injury.

Once they are no longer useful to the club — through age, injury, or poor performance — they are cast adrift. As the drive for profit grows, clubs attempt to squeeze the greatest amount possible out of the bodies they have purchased, heightening the risk of injury and shortening the average career length, as exhausted bodies give in more quickly.

The government is pushing to intensify the drug testing regime on sports players. In the AFL, this would mean undermining a player's privacy by removing the "three strikes" rule that means a player's name is withheld from the press the first two times they test positive to a banned substance. Players currently have a six-week period at the end of the season when they are free from drug testing, but the government wants the AFL to subject players to year-round tests. While the AFL players' association has resisted this push, another code, Rugby Union, has announced it is likely to move to year-round tests on players in the competition — an outrageous attack on players' rights that is not in any way related to the game of rugby.

One argument raised to justify making an issue of whether or not professional sport players uses prohibited drugs is that they are role models. This argument is hypocritical to its core. If the media is so concerned about the effect on young people of reports that their sporting heroes take illicit drugs, then it should refrain from reporting it — something that should be done regardless on the grounds of respect for a player's privacy.

The media and politicians know full well that sportspeople are not a different species. Drug use is widespread in our society, although it is mostly alcohol and tobacco. Both football codes have long been associated with an unhealthy culture of alcohol abuse (indeed Johns appears to have abused alcohol more than illicit drugs). AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou told the Australian on 31 July: "Alcohol abuse is a far bigger problem in football than the issue of illicit drugs. We have no doubt about that."

But a cynical game is being played where getting caught using the wrong sort of drug is the cue for a round of public pillorying and voyeuristic gossip that increases profits for media corporations and gives politicians an excuse for chest-beating.

It is this cynical game that has led to Cousins, who has won just about every award it is possible for an AFL player to win at the age of 29, being sacked by his club and punished by the AFL. The Cousins' scandal has damaged the AFL "brand", making Cousins more a liability than an asset for the profit-driven business the AFL is running. This is a key factor in the decision of the Eagles to sack a player the club president referred to as the club's "greatest".

But the Eagles had little choice as corporate sponsors were threatening to pull out. The mighty dollar is worth more than Cousins' right to play at the top level and for fans to enjoy his performances. Most likely, it is only because of Cousins' immense talent there is a chance the AFL will agree to let him play again in 2009, providing that it is confident he won't provoke another barrage of bad publicity that will damage the league's ability to attract corporate sponsors.

Meanwhile, a serious approach to tackling issues related to abuse of drugs, legal or illegal (and the latter would require combining the ending of prohibition of personal drug use and funding for the resources required to treat addiction as a medical issue) remains unmentioned in the avalanche of articles.

[Based on an article originally published at http://newmatilda.com.]

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