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Follicle challenge: the Ben Cousins saga and reforms to drug testing
As a footballer, Ben Cousins was one of the best of his generation. Among various accolades, he won the Brownlow Medal in 2005 and was part of the West Coast premiership team of 2006. But today Cousins is about to serve a one-year prison term after pleading guilty to 11 offences, including aggravated stalking, breaching a violence restraining order, drug possession, and driving without a licence.
Cousins’ fall from grace is neither new nor unexpected. In late 2007 he was charged with “bringing the game into disrepute” and served a 12-month suspension. This stemmed from various off-field misdemeanours, the catalyst appearing to be addiction to illicit drugs – particularly cocaine and methamphetamine.
Crucially, although the AFL tests for these substances out of competition, and ASADA during competition, these urine tests never implicated Cousins. His drug problem became obvious in the wake of police charges for possession, as well as public admissions on his behalf.
A life on the line
In 2009, Richmond offered Cousins a chance to play, which the AFL agreed to, but only if he – as a recovering drug addict – was target-tested.
Cousins was desperate to play but reluctant to give up his drug habit. He would be subject to a hair test: according to the AFL, this had the capacity to determine whether someone had used an illicit drug in the previous three months.
During the 2008 filming of a documentary on Cousins’ life – entitled Such is Life – he revealed being “paranoid” about this new test.
Cousins’ response was, as ever, extreme: he had his head shaved and a full body wax. Drug testers were unable to secure a follicle, and so had to resort to urine samples: this method has a very brief detection window, typically a few days.
The inference was clear: Cousins wanted to continue his drug habit. Despite urinary target-testing, once again he never tested positive – either during the week under AFL rules or on matchdays under ASADA’s rules (the latter would be a doping offence).
2006: tainted glory?
In 2008, the AFL commissioned a report by retired Victorian Supreme Court judge William Gillard, whose brief was to investigate off-field misconduct by West Coast players, and the response of the club. However, a summary of the findings was never made public.
The recent discovery of the original report by journalist Michael Warner provides a damning assessment, both in terms of an illicit drug culture and the club’s incapacity or unwillingness to tackle this off-field problem.
Some observers now claim that West Coast should be stripped of its 2006 premiership, with Cousins also forfeiting his 2005 Brownlow Medal. This stems from a belief that the use of illicit drugs outside of competition amounts to cheating in sport.
However, the global body that oversees anti-doping, WADA, is only concerned about illicit drugs on the day of competition (at which time it tests).
WADA has always asserted that illicit drugs out of competition are very-short-acting and have no cumulative effect as a performance-enhancer. They are more likely to present athletes with health impacts that are detrimental to athletic acumen.
The idea that West Coast or Cousins should be treated as dopers owing to illicit drug use out of competition is contrary to the WADA Code – to which all Australian sports are signatories.
In his 2008 report, Gillard asserted that – to be effective – illicit drug testing should take place “365 days”. At least 22 of those are covered by ASADA’s anti-doping testing on match day, leaving the bulk of urine tests to be conducted randomly by Dorevitch Pathology (contracted by the AFL).
These out-of-competition tests are not cheap – typically a couple of hundred dollars each – and they are not required by WADA for anti-doping. But the expense explains why many sports in Australia do not have substantive testing of this kind.
However, for a financially sound organisation like the AFL, there is an opportunity to reconsider whether urine tests are fit for purpose. With admissions by players like Cousins and (retired) Collingwood player Dane Swan of regular use of illicit drugs outside of matchday, it seems clear that the existing mode of detection is failing.
Whether athletes should be tested for drugs that are not connected to cheating in sport is worth pondering. But all stakeholders in the AFL – the league, the players and their union – are committed to this regimen.
However, while the AFL has long patted itself on the back for a policy that focuses on athlete wellbeing, claims that it has been an effective deterrent are fanciful.
Hair testing for illicit drugs has the advantage of being able to detect substance use for weeks prior – potentially up to a window of three months. The current AFL illicit drug policy – updated in 2016 – need not be changed, other than for the testing method.
In short, if the AFL and its players are serious about athlete wellbeing and brand integrity, then it is time to reconsider best-practice testing to enable detection, recovery and (where appropriate) sanctions.
Veneer of integrity
There is a further lesson from the Gillard report: an independent body – not a sport organisation – is best placed to oversee an integrity issue like illicit drugs.
The AFL has its own integrity unit; it is responsible only to the league. The unit was established in 2008, the same year in which the Gillard report failed to see the light of day.
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