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A New Approach to Illicit Drug Use: Prendergast

Wed, 10 May 2017

From RLPA CEO Ian Prendergast: 

If we are serious about addressing the use of illicit drugs in our game we first need to look at the facts of the matter and treat this with a balanced view.

Like it or not, illicit drug use is widespread across society and it’s an incredibly complex issue.

The reality is that Australians are amongst the highest consumers in the world of all illicit drugs. We also have a long way to go when it comes to building a healthier culture around alcohol.

I’ll get criticised for saying this, but illicit drug use is a societal issue that clearly Rugby League players aren’t immune to. Unfortunately, or fortunately I’d argue, players are people first and footballers second.

We’re all disappointed to see our players in these positions and the damage it does to everyone involved, including the game, but given Rugby League players are within the demographic most likely to take illicit drugs the risks will remain and situations will evidently occur.

That’s not to say we are unable to do anything about it – we all want to reduce these incidents, but it’s not as simple as increased suspensions or life bans. The RLPA wants to work in partnership with the NRL to come up with a better approach to addressing this issue.

Testing

Players are the only stakeholder in the game who put their hand up to be tested. This is an important point that goes to the leadership players are showing on this issue and that they understand the necessity for accountability. This, however, must be matched with the right level of support and commitment across the game.

This testing is in addition to the Anti-Doping Code that doesn’t test for illicit drugs such as cocaine outside of competition. 

We are not opposed to testing, but it is critical that we take an evidence-based approach to reducing incidents of drug use and the long-term harms to players. 

Sanctions

Whilst it might make us all feel better to demand ‘zero-tolerance’ and harsher penalties, there is no evidence that this will be more effective.

It’s worth noting that the Police have introduced what is effectively a three-strike policy in most Australian states. Offenders receive diversion orders into education and treatment before being charged.

It is also important to note that footballers do not get off lightly.

Having witnessed first-hand how deeply the public shame affects these individuals and those around them, it’s the public embarrassment that often gets ignored when considering whether the punishment fits the crime. That damage is irreparable. 

Education

The current NRL Testing Policy (Illicit and Hazardous Drugs) was originally established to have a focus on education, counselling, treatment and ongoing support. 

But it’s concerning that as a game we have moved away from those principles.

We must stand up and do what’s right to protect not only the game but the people in it.

Culture

Players come from a range of different cultural backgrounds, education and upbringings.

I don’t accept that we are doing enough simply because players already receive varying levels of information and should know better.

Yes, individual’s must absolutely take responsibility for their actions, but it’s important to remember that we are in a human-being industry. Achieving cultural change demands so much more than increased penalties.

Integrity is everyone’s business and cultural change requires considered leadership to ensure we take a more sophisticated approach to creating the right environments, effectively managing risk, empowering our people and helping them to grow.

Engagement

We know that our Wellbeing and Education investment in players as people is working. 

Now we need to continue elevating and evolving this area. This requires an all-in, consistent and clear approach.

Recent data shows that 82% of the players investigated by the NRL Integrity Unit were disengaged off-field; noting that only 16% of players across the game are not engaged in meaningful personal and professional off-field development.

The Way Forward

We have the opportunity to work in partnership with the NRL and engage the experts to improve the approach we take to tackling this challenging issue. 

We are not claiming to have the silver bullet by any means, however we believe we can achieve positive change by delivering the following outcomes under the next Collective Bargaining Agreement and reviewing th current Policy:

  • Improved processes regarding NRL Integrity Unit investigations, Breach Notices, Decision Making and Sanctions
  • The establishment of a Rehabilitation Panel and Integrity Committee involving experts in those fields to enforce compliances and develop best practices
  • Increased investments in Wellbeing and Education; investing in Players as people and engaging them off the field

This will, in turn, better protect the game we know and love. The RLPA stands ready to work with the NRL to promote evidence based solutions that are guided by the experts. 

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