Fresh hysteria on drugs and sport

September 3, 2010

In recent weeks, media commentary on the use of illicit drugs by professional sports players has exploded again.

The first cause was the recently retired Australian rules football star and recovering drug addict Ben Cousin’s documentary Such is Life: The Troubled Times of Ben Cousins. It aired on Channel 7 on August 25 and 26.

The second was the overdose on GHB of Travis Tuck, a player for Australian Football League (AFL) club Hawthorn, on August 27.

Tuck became the first AFL player to be sanctioned under the code’s “three strikes” rule, having previously failed two drug tests. He was suspended for 12 weeks.

Under AFL rules, a player is sanctioned only the third time they fail a drug test. Until then, the name of players testing positive to banned substances remains confidential. Only the player’s club doctor is informed after the second failed test to allow for counselling and treatment.

Tuck, who has not played in the senior Hawthorn team all season, has been receiving treatment for clinical depression.

The main effect of Tuck’s suspension has been a new round of calls for toughening the “three strikes” rule. Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett has led the charge to demand clubs be told whenever one of their players fails a test.

Given the large number of leaks from AFL clubs, this essentially means making it public.

Many voices, including the AFL Players’ Association, have opposed this push, pointing out it would only shame the player involved. If they had a drug problem, it could seriously endanger their health.

This is true, but all commentary has ignored the question: why does the AFL have the right to test for use of recreational drugs deemed illegal, but that that are not performance enhancing, and mete out punishment for those caught?

Regardless of opinions about whether drug prohibition is a good policy, the AFL is not the police force and neither are football clubs — they are employers of professional sports players.

The double standards involved were revealed when Cousins was hospitalised in July after an overdose. As he overdosed on legally prescribed sleeping pills, the only concern was for his health.

Had he overdosed on an illegal substance, he would have been banned from the game once more and faced police charges.

Should bosses in general be allowed to drug test their workforce for drug use? It does take place in some industries, but many people would rightly see this as invasion of privacy and an unfair regulation of a worker’s private life.

The approach to recreational drug use by professional sports players pushes in this direction.

North Melbourne player Drew Petrie, in an August 25 opinion piece, explicitly raised this: “I completely support drug testing for players, but it does sometimes make you wonder why it is only players and athletes who are tested and so heavily scrutinised.”

Many commentators reacted to Cousins’ documentary with moral hysteria.

Possibly the most hypocritical complaint in the media was that Cousins cynically exploited his addiction to make money through the documentary and sought to manipulate his public image.

Of course, Channel 7 showed the documentary with one thought in mind: ratings. And Cousins was paid well for providing the opportunity.

But Cousins has been subjected to relentless media coverage — with the media all trying to cash in on his story. After playing his final AFL game for Richmond on August 29, he commented wryly: “My front page strike rate was Don Bradman-like.”

The documentary at least gave him a chance to tell his story on his own terms.

What especially flummoxes anti-drug moralists is that, for about a decade, Cousins was both a superstar on the field and a regular drug user. Cousins was one of the greatest players of his generation. On the field, his performances were sublime and a joy for football fans to watch.

His story violates the line that all use of drugs deemed illegal is destructive and leads to ruin. But, before his addiction spiralled out of control, Cousins performed at a very high level.

In the documentary, Cousins described the dynamic between the extremes of his intense training and drug binges. He would put himself through physical hell, denying himself basic pleasures. Then, to break the pressure, he wiped himself out on drugs.

In the end, the tension between these extremes resolved itself in a damaging addiction.

The documentary was slammed for showing images of a high Cousins dancing in his underwear, on the grounds it set a bad example for youth. But no serious discussion on the use of intoxicants can occur by censoring the truth that people have fun using them.

The fact is, if you take cocaine or methamphetamines, there is a risk you will end up dancing happily in your underwear. If you take such drugs frequently, as Cousins did, there is an even greater risk you will end up with a damaging addiction.

The documentary showed both truths.

Former English soccer captain Tony Adams described his battle with drug addiction and its relationship to the physical and emotional demands of professional sport in a similar way in his 1998 autobiography Addicted.

The difference was Adams was addicted to alcohol.

Not everyone who drinks alcohol will end up like Adams and not everyone who uses illegal intoxicants will end up like Cousins.

But these examples do offer lessons for looking at the problem of drug abuse. As working hours get longer in the workforce in general, the growing pressure it places on workers will increasingly find expression in greater use of intoxicants to cope — mainly alcohol.

Cousins and Adams were at least highly paid and subjected themselves to the pressure of professional sports voluntarily. Many workers face increasing work pressure for reasons outside their control.

Hypocritical lectures from self-appointed moral guardians on the evils of drugs or binge drinking won’t solve this problem.

Another criticism of Cousins is that he has failed to show proper contrition in public. But why should he?

Cousins has been through his own personal hell. That he is alive is an achievement. Any apology he feels the need to give to those he hurt through his addiction is a private matter.

Cousins has refused to hypocritically rail against drugs. He has been open about his personal battle and has left it at that.

One controversial aspect of the documentary led to media questioning about whether Cousins should have been allowed back in the game at all after his one-year ban.

In late 2008, as he sought to convince the AFL to let him back in, he was subjected to a hair test for drug use. Cousins caused outrage by shaving his head and waxing his body.

In the documentary, Cousins confirmed suspicions he did this out of fear he would test positive. The documentary revealed that, as Cousins battled his addiction that year, he suffered a relapse. This is not uncommon and Cousins fought his way through it.

The test came months after this, but hair tests can reveal drug from use three to four months in the past.

Cousins said he feared the AFL was out to get him and would not understand a positive test result in light of his ongoing rehabilitation. He had a point — the AFL cared far less for Cousins’ health than it did about protecting its “brand” and associated profits from more scandal.

Cousins also said the AFL wanted him to lie and deny he was an addict, blaming other personal issues for his problems. He said it would have been easier to return to the game if he had done so, but felt it was important to tell the truth — he was an addict and would be for life.

The worst response to the show came from the WA police, who called on Cousins to dob in former drug dealers. This simply reveals the authorities are trapped in the mindset of the futile “war on drugs”.

Cousins could betray people he knew, opening them up to prosecution, but it would do nothing to stop people using illegal drugs. People will use intoxicants, legal or otherwise, for a variety of reasons and making those involved criminals does not help.

But a discussion on a more rational way to respond to the question of drug addiction is not on the cards for a media that remains morbidly concerned with such critical questions as whether Cousins used drugs the night his close friend, former AFL star Chris Mainwaring, died from an overdose in 2007.

In this atmosphere, the AFL tags along, scared for its brand, playing the role of a cop enforcing laws that have nothing to do with the sport and have demonstrably failed.


Wow, what a breath of fresh air. It's encouraging to finally see some balance in the Ben Cousins story. Well done.
I wish to respond to the point raised here: "Should bosses in general be allowed to drug test their workforce for drug use? It does take place in some industries, but many people would rightly see this as invasion of privacy and an unfair regulation of a worker’s private life." Obviously there are health and safety issues involved in some industries, such as driving, where there is a proven link between drug or alcohol consumption and accidents.

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