Where’s the line with Wendell Sailor?

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Ding dong, Dell’s in trouble again. But if Wendell Sailor played AFL, he’d be spared the embarrassment of having his name dragged through the mud for a first positive test to cocaine – or even a second one – not to mention a potential ban that will cost him a fortune and affect the whole team. Should athletes be outed like this when they are caught using social drugs?

Sailor’s no stranger to these situations, having been in trouble for drinking on several occasions now, but this time he’s facing a two year ban for testing positive to cocaine. AFL players, though, don’t get named until their third positive test for a social drug. And the world body (WADA) doesn’t require bans for positive tests to social drugs out of competition. And the AFL Players’ Association think the leniency should go even further, especially in terms of marijuana abuse – which is, if anything, a performance-inhibiting drug. (And if I worked for Essendon, I’d sniff carefully around their dressing room). This ban, as I understand it, is a question of the ARU’s own code.

The AFL code seems far more mature. Three strikes is probably enough to allow for a few mistakes via youthful exuberance or misjudgement. But although the AFL would argue that the three-strikes system provides players with an incentive to clean up their act once busted – a far more productive solution than ending a player’s career, surely – that logic hardly works in Sailor’s case. After all the drinking scandals he’d been through, the guy doesn’t exactly lack the knowledge of what happens when you get busted for using a social drug.

But even if he used it every weekend, I ultimately fail to see why this is any of our business. Why should we get to hear about a private individual taking cocaine just because he happens to play sport? It’s not like he disgraced himself in public (this time at least), which brings the game into disrepute and sets a bad example for the kiddies. If football stars get trashed in the privacy of their own mansions, it’s a matter for their employer as to whether it detrimentally affects their performance – and that should be it.

Social drug use is a reality for many young Aussies, and it seems fundamentally unreasonable to stop the man playing football just because he might have snorted coke like any honest, upstanding advertising creative would.

Sure, it’s illegal, but that’s a matter for the police, not the ARU. Realistically, many people use cocaine with impunity, and seem to suffer no major ill effects other than being incredibly annoying. A trip to any nightclub proves we don’t exactly have a zero tolerance regime. And it’s a bit rich for anyone in the media to get up in arms about it. Visit to the bathroom at your average media awards night and you’ll see more fine white powder on display than your average day at Thredbo.

There’s also the matter of a presumption of innocence. Sailor has been denied this. He’s banned until the hearing, which hurts the player and his various teams. When the drug isn’t performance-enhancing, it’s hard to see how this is in any way justified. It may be dumb and irresponsible, but it isn’t cheating.

It also seems inappropriate to follow a strict liability approach with cocaine – that is, apply the rules regardless of extenuating circumstances. I know that players’ excuses are often lame and ultimately disproven, and Sailor has sensibly not offered any yet. But there’s nothing to stop a player having something slipped into his drink as a form of match fixing. It might seem like a far-fetched conspiracy, but a betting ring once went to the trouble of switching off the floodlights at English football matches to manipulate betting, so why not fix matches by getting key players banned? I don’t know whether it’s be possible to coke to show up in your system for any reason other than an individual voluntarily snorting it – if you share a lift with Kate Moss for instance, might you inhale it along with her perfume? – but if it is, that should be taken into account.

I’m all in favour of throwing the book at any sportsperson who tries to get an unfair advantage through drugs, certainly. But the likes of David Campese who want him kicked out completely, without regard to circumstances, go too far. Even if he made an error of judgement, Sailor is not obliged to live a completely clean life just because he happens to be good at running with a football. He doesn’t owe the game that. And I think it should reinstate him whether or not he used cocaine – the scandal itself has been punishment enough. Further, the game should adopt the AFL’s more sensible approach to protecting players’ privacy.

But failing that, if he really can’t escape the rap, he could always go back to rugby league. A guy who gets involved in this many scandals would fit right in at the Bulldogs.

Dominic Knight