How on earth do we fix this mess?  

By Ray Chesterton                                                                            
October 03, 2007
 

AN autopsy report today will link the death of former West Coast Eagles AFL star Chris Mainwaring to recreational drug abuse. 

But in a few days Mainwaring's death will fall into the oblivion reserved for fading news stories. It will have been a momentary but highly public blip - until the next death.

That's what happened when rugby league Test star Peter Jackson died of a drug overdose in 1997.

And if not for a policeman in London, it might be rugby league's greatest player Andrew Johns and not Mainwaring in the news.

The constable found an ecstasy tablet in Johns' pocket which began the public unraveling of the Australia star's drug problems.

Instead of Mainwaring running through streets near his Perth home yelling and screaming as he battled demons unleashed by a weekend binge on ecstasy and alcohol, it might have been Johns.  

Johns has now vowed to abandon drugs and continue medication to counter his depression.

Elite football in Australia - rugby league, rugby union and AFL - is awash with a drug problem that authorities are struggling to counteract.

Just look at the facts: from Mark Geyer to Wendell Sailor to Mark Bosnich to Ben Cousins, there is a sea of well-known sporting heroes turned drug abusers. For so long some people have argued we don't need to test for so-called recreational drugs. Yet here again, with Mainwaring, we are faced with the harsh reality of a problem too long ignored.

A sporting player-manager said yesterday on condition of anonymity that player use of recreational drugs was rife.

"Footballers have easy access to recreational drugs because people want to be their friends," he said. "They give them drugs."

Reform measures by authorities are ineffective. The AFL allows players three drug offences before public discipline. It is seen as soft.

There is more support for NRL policy of a player being named for a second offence after the first breach was kept secret.

There is even more support for the comprehensive diligence of the Brisbane Broncos, who conduct a minimum 300 drug tests a year on their teams.

"The players agree they can be tested 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year," says CEO Bruno Cullen. "But alcohol is a greater curse than drugs. Most offences by players, including being tempted to use drugs, can be traced to alcohol."

Three clubs - believed to be Souths, Gold Coast and the Cowboys - are now looking at duplicating the Broncos' hard-line drugs policy. Sport cannot change society but it can protect its own territory provided it has the courage.The Broncos' solution is draconian but it works - that is what matters.

Former Kangaroo Greg Alexander says the Broncos idea has merit.

"A player would have to decide if having a big night out is worth ending his career," he said.
"I wouldn't be opposed to that policy."

NRL boss David Gallop says his code's policy demands clubs do a minimum 70 tests a year for recreation drugs.

"Testing of federal police is no more onerous than ours, and they carry weapons," he said.

A flaw in the NRL system pinpoints the problems clubs face in disciplining star players. The NRL keeps a player's first positive drug test secret but it publicly names anyone caught twice and imposes a 12-week suspension.

It is possible to serve a 12-week suspension and still return to first grade the same year, opening the way for a possible third offence.

There is also a perception that clubs are reluctant to upset key players - particularly one playing well despite his known drug use.

Johns admitted his pursuit of drugs and alcohol was so ferocious and so public it was an open secret in his home city of Newcastle. Yet not once did Johns test positive to drugs.

It's now a decade since fun-loving Jackson was found dead of an overdose in a lonely motel. It was the first significant death from drugs in rugby league.

The horrific details of his addiction and battle with depression caused an avalanche of questions about how it happened.

Surely someone had known? Surely something could have been done? Help should have been provided. A decade later, the same blame game was replayed about Johns.

"The first duty of care belongs to the club," said another player-manager. "But I know one manager who checked a client into rehab and picked him up a week later. The player had been in first grade a lot but drugs took it all away."

Mixed signals about the role of players in society and the dilemma clubs face if a star tests positive cloud the situation. Most players love the limelight and the commercial opportunities on offer but argue they are not role models.

Brisbane's Bruno Cullen disagrees.

"From the moment players sign their first autograph they are role models," he says.  

 

 

 Home Page                        Print Media