So, Andrew Johns – sorry, Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns – was busted with ecstacy. And at a party, what’s more – not in a desperate attempt to enjoy watching a Newcastle Knights match, which would have been more understandable. No – his defence was that someone had put it in his pocket. It’s amazing how often drugs seem to mysteriously appear when high-profile people are out partying. Don’t tell me that Michelle Leslie’s mysterious friend “Mia” has been up to her old tricks again?
These are embarrassing headlines for a man who admits he’s a role model for kids, but hardly unusual. This year it seems more footballers have hit the headlines for drug incidents than for their play, especially out on the wild, wild West Coast.
Now, I’m not about to pass judgement on whether it was Joey’s ecstacy, or he’d taken it, or anything like that. Call me a shameless libertine, but I’m not particularly bothered by the revelation that someone who has retired from a sport might care to indulge in – or at least be caught with – a recreational drug. I am led to believe people like them. Hence the market. Hence today’s statistic that cocaine use – or at least prosecutions – are up 70%. In fact, the coke market’s looking a lot healthier than the stock market. Talk about an 80s revival.
Casual drug use is commonplace, and it would be deeply hypocritical for many in the media to be up in arms about it. Almost as hypocritical, in fact, as if someone who’s opposed gay marriage and hounded Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky pleaded guilty to soliciting gay sex in a public toilet.
The interesting question, though, is what we do about the supposed drug scourge. In Joey’s case, it’s been taken care of quickly, efficiently and sensibly. He got an official warning, a black mark, but no further consequences. That seems an extremely mature approach from the UK justice system. A slap on the wrist – and an embarrassing spectacle in the case of someone high-profile – and the promise of more severe consequences next time. He’ll learn from it, and probably be more careful next time. And that’s pretty much all that has to be said.
Far more serious than Joey’s situation is the furore over Channel Seven’s outing of players based on obtaining their medical records. The AFL has introduced a three-strikes policy that keeps positive tests for recreational (that is, non-performance-enhancing) initially confidential. It’s controversial, but it shouldn’t be. Warning the player is a far better approach than humiliating them. Young players are often thrust into a world of limitless hedonism by their celebrity and money, and can’t always handle it. The AFL’s approach lets them get the counselling they need to get past it.
I’ve been impressed to see to see how the players have reacted by snubbing Channel Seven. Obviously the network can’t be trusted to look after players’ welfare, or take the game’s interests at heart, so it’s only fair to punish them by other means.
And let’s face it, if the AFL had banned every single player who had been linked to drugs this year, some clubs might not have been able to field teams.
The fact is that occasional drug use is extremely commonplace, and we need to adjust our attitudes. The AFL has led the way in dealing with the issue (and Johns’ punishment has been similarly constructive) and the League should be supported, not undermined by irresponsible tabloid journalists with no regard for privacy or the well-being of those invoved. It is far more sensible to confidentially reprimand people and hope they’ll learn their lesson than let loose the sniffer hounds whenever anyone’s caught.
UPDATE: I wrote this yesterday, before it was revealed that Johns has, in fact, used ecstasy throughout his playing career. This will damage his reputation irretrievably. But it doesn’t change my view about how best to deal with these situations.
Johns says that people at the club knew, which would tend to suggest there was a cover-up. Under the AFL system, where his privacy would have been guaranteed (Channel Seven notwithstanding), the problem could properly have been addressed, and he could have received the counselling he needed; discreetly and constructively.
Life must be difficult sometimes for high-profile sportsmen, and that’s all the more reason for dealing with these issues primarily as a health issue, rather than as an opportunity for wowserism.
Johns on retirement day – photo Kitty Hill