A column about drugs in sport

Drugs and elite sporting heroes, it seems, go together like nitro and glycerine. First there was the revelation that the great Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns, dubbed by many the greatest rugby league player of all time, had regularly taken drugs throughout his career. It was astonishing to read that he had so successfully juggled recreational drug abuse with performing at the top level. How good would he have been, one wonders, if he’d lived an abstemptious life like Guy Sebastian’s?

This week his AFL equivalent, Wayne ‘The King’ Carey, has been in the harsh glow of media scrutiny again for the revelation that he regularly used cocaine throughout his playing days. So humiliating has been this latest downfall that the period when he was merely involved in a salacious sex scandal probably count for him as the “good old days.” It’s a sad tale, but just as we’ve seen with the likes of Britney Spears in the entertainment world, an increasingly common one.

Above The King, of course, there is only God – or, at least in AFL nickname terms, Gary Ablett, whose struggle with substance abuse has been well documented. And countless other footballers have been busted as well, Wendell Sailor being one particularly prominent example. It almost beggars belief that athletes who are paid so much to be in peak physical condition could risk everything in a quest for a short-term high. (Or, in Carey’s case, a series of short-term highs for the extremely long term.)The tendency of top footballers to get busted with recreational drugs is so pronounced that there must be more to it than mere coincidence. It’s almost as if team doctors are racking up lines of coke along with the vitamin supplements.

When they bare all in exclusive interviews on Enough Rope in an attempt to patch up their tarnished reputations, our sporting heroes most commonly blame the adulation and the pressure. So much is expected of these amazing athletes who can single-handedly transform a game that they simply can’t hack it, apparently, and have to artificially augment their moods.

I’m not so sure that it just comes down to pressure. The players in soccer’s English Premier League enjoy some of the highest wages in the world, fans that are far more rabid than even the most one-eyed AFL tragic, and the pressure of a game where winning and losing can cost teams hundreds of millions of dollars, and very few of them go off the rails these days. The Perhaps it’s the higher frequency of games, perhaps their schedules are far more demanding – or perhaps there’s simply more professionalism. Perhaps, being cultured Europeans, they indulge in refined moderation?

Well, there’s an easy solution to the problem of footballers’ extremely broad shoulders being unable to cope with carrying the hopes and dreams of a nation. It’s called indifference. I can honestly say, with my hand firmly on my heart, that I have always been entirely oblivious to the footballing achievements of Wayne Carey. Until that unfortunate incident with his vice-captain’s wife, I’d barely heard of the guy. So, when he complains about the pressure he experienced during his playing days, my conscience is magnificently clear. To me, Wayne Carey is not a disgraced footy legend, he’s a disgraced guy who used to do something I don’t really understand. And though it’s true that I have always looked up to him, it’s only because I’m shorter.

I will confess that during past Origin matches I often found myself screaming at the Blues to throw the ball to Joey, since it seemed to be the only tactic that ever actually produced anything resembling tries. And yet, outside those three crucial games, his actions held minimal interest for me. I vaguely remember him once winning a premiership with the Knights, but really, that’s about it. Still, if the poor overpaid poppets are really feeling the heat of our expectations, then really, there’s no harm in lowering them.

The real problem, I suspect, is that the football codes are turning a blind eye to their elite players as long as they keep producing the results when the big games roll around. Teams build these players up into stars to sell tickets and replica jerseys, so it’s their responsibility to look after their psychological conditions.

The problems with Johns and Carey will hopefully have ended this forever. And that can only be a good thing. Let’s hope that for the next generation of hero footballers, the only devastation they wreak will be on-field, not in other people’s lives – and, so often, their own.

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