Sports Integrity Initiative: AFL players’ doping bans sparks illicit drugs policy debate

Two players of the Australian Football League (AFL) club Collingwood, Lachlan Keeffe and Josh Thomas, have accepted two-year bans after testing positive for the banned substance clenbuterol. The bans are backdated to their provisional suspension by the AFL in March earlier this year. Collingwood released a statement saying that, in accordance with the AFL Anti-Doping Code and the World Anti-Doping Agency, the two footballers had been delisted by the club and would be fined approximately $50,000 (€33,630) each, which includes having part of their 2015 player payments withheld, a figure agreed to by the players and their representatives.

Although Collingwood delisted the two players the club has committed to re-drafting the two players as rookies should they nominate, and accepted that the players did not intentionally take performance enhancing drugs and that they did not knowingly consume clenbuterol.

Both players read prepared statements at a press conference at the club’s training facility on Monday, in which Keeffe and Thomas said that they accepted that they had breached the AFL’s anti-doping policy, albeit unintentionally, as well as accepting that they would be sanctioned.

“We deeply regret our actions,” Keeffe told the press conference. “We take full responsibility for our mistakes, and we accept the consequences.”

“We are here today because on 10 February we tested positive to the banned substance clenbuterol,” said Thomas. “While we are unable to be absolutely certain to how this substance came to be in our system, we can only assume that it occurred on a night out prior to testing, in which we took illicit drugs.”

Although we can’t be sure, we believe that the substance that we took was laced with clenbuterol. We want to stress that at no stage did we knowingly take clenbuterol,” Thomas said. “We know that we made a serious error in judgment. I want to make it absolutely clear that we have never intentionally taken performance enhancing drugs.”

Clenbuterol, which features on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Prohibited List, is prohibited for human consumption in Australia. It is a veterinary product, often used to treat asthma in horses. It is also an anabolic agent thought to promote muscle growth and weight loss, and is often used in animal feed to keep meat lean. It has a Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) set by the European Union, due to the active effect in can have on humans, however such limits are not set in other jurisdictions.

The apparent consumption of clenbuterol, a performance enhancing drug, unknowingly through taking an illicit ‘recreational’ drug, has sparked a wider debate in Australia over the AFL’s Illicit Drug Policy. In March when the players’ initial positive tests were released, former ASADA boss Richard Ings produced a rudimentary list detailing the known ways to get clenbuterol in a person’s system, which included being cut within illegal drugs such as cocaine.

Currently the AFL’s illicit drugs policy means that players who have traces of illicit drugs detected within their systems for the first time, such as cocaine, that they would only receive a strike without sanction and their identities would remain anonymous. However, for the presence of a performance enhancing prohibited substance so described on the WADA Prohibited List under the AFL’s anti-doping code, a player will be ineligible from participating in any AFL Competition for two years.

Nick Maxwell, a former captain of the Collingwood Football Club, expressed concern on the issue of illicit drugs in football, stating in a Collingwood media video that players are “not adequately educated on the perils of taking illicit substances.” Collingwood CEO Gary Pert said in a statement on behalf of the club that, “There is no longer a separation between illicit and performance enhancing drugs. Anyone in our game who chooses to consume illicit drugs must also, from now on, accept that they may also be consuming performance enhancing drugs.”

I remind everyone that Lachlan and Josh made decisions to take illicit drugs, not performance enhancing drugs, on the assumption that even if detected they would only receive a strike without sanction and their identities would have remained anonymous.

This is clearly not a big enough deterrent. We need to have an industry policy that has a consequence big enough to convince all players to say no.”

A high profile Australian National Rugby League (NRL) player, Reni Maitua, served a two-year ban for clenbuterol and later admitted taking illicit drugs which he believed were tainted with performance enhancing substances. In March, the Herald Sun reported that Maitua had told News Corp in 2011, as he prepared to return from the two-year ban, that, ‘Clenbuterol is known as a cutting agent for recreational drugs. You don’t need to read between the lines to understand. It’s pretty obvious what’s happened. The most embarrassing thing is that people might think I’m a [steroid] cheat. I would much rather be known as someone who partied too much than a cheat.’

The AFL announced in May that it was to review its three-strikes illicit drugs code, a review which is due to be concluded by the end of the season and will therefore allow new protocols to be in place for the start of the off-season. Gary Pert commented that the AFL’s review was “not only warranted” but that change was “necessary”. Collingwood’s CEO said, “We want to be preventing problems, not solving them.”

The AFL Players’ Association (AFLPA), the representative body for AFL players, issued a statement saying that it has been ‘actively supporting’ the two footballers. The statement continued, ‘While we do not condone their actions, the penalty they will suffer is immense.’

This unfortunate situation serves as a painful reminder that the taking of illicit drugs carries significant risks to a player’s health and livelihood. By their nature, illicit drugs are not subject to the checks and balances that regulated supplements are – it is impossible to know what they contain.’
The AFLPA said that it was committed to a joint review of the current policy with the AFL.

• This article was originally published in the Sports Integrity Initiative internet journal on 10 August 2015. To access the original, please click here.

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