Many view the life of an AFL player as one of privilege; men who get to play the game that they love and who at the most elite level of the game get paid more money per-match than many people make in a year.
Many supporters make the mistake of thinking of the time required for an AFL player as simply weekly training sessions and then the glory, fame and excitement of competing on match day.
The truth is far less palatable and talent aside, the majority of supporters wouldn’t have the capacity to be an AFL player. While it can be incredibly lucrative as a career, it is also short-term and increasingly demanding.
Multiple training sessions per week, measuring of their body fat percentage, control of their diets and what they do in their leisure time to injury rehabilitation, media appearances, supporter commitments, a lack of privacy and intense day-to-day scrutiny, speculation and judgement of all of their actions are all things players have to juggle, and this is before they pull on their boots on match day.
Recent media controversy has speculated about a troublesome culture from the youth of the competition up to the most elite of players. Innuendo about excessive drinking, drug use and gambling addictions has been features of the headlines of major papers. These articles add more pressure to what is already an intense environment and often point the finger at the AFL’s drug testing policy, which is one of the strictest in the world, as being part of the problem.
The mainstream media’s fascination with the release of private patient information in regards to recreational drug use has little to do with concern over a player’s welfare and more to do with a rabid desire to publish controversial articles in order to sell more papers.
The truth is far less exotic as revealed by a report on ‘A strategy to reduce illicit drug use is effective in elite Australian football’ by Peter R. Harcourt, Harry Unglik and Jill L. Cook. The number of tests conducted on AFL players, particularly in the off-season, has increased each year since 2005 through both target and random testing. Since 2005, there have been no positive match day tests for illicit substances and there has been a significant reduction in positive tests outside of match time, down from 19 to six.
Illicit drug use is not something that is restricted to AFL players, reported to be as high as 38% in Australian society and even higher for the 20-29 age group, which is where the majority of AFL players land. Undeniably, AFL players are a risk group for illicit drug use, substance abuse and even gambling addiction. These are young men who have large amounts of disposable income and are exposed to an intense amount of scrutiny and pressure both on and off the field.
The Western Bulldogs recently offered Brent Prismall, who missed out on being drafted for 2013 after a career hampered by injury, the position of payer welfare manager. While Prismall would no doubt love to be out on the field, the off-field support role is becoming increasingly important. With excellent support structures, hopefully AFL players can be given the assistance to navigate their increasingly tricky environment.
As a recent player, Prismall would have a wealth of knowledge on the day-to-day pressures being faced by AFL players and would be capable of assisting his teammates in coping with the stress that comes with being part of the nation’s elite competition.
Plucking names out of the hat for speculation, publication of positive test results and disclosure to the media wolves is not the way to protect AFL players or to help them overcome any problems that they may have. The AFL’s illicit drug policy focuses on harm minimisation which has been shown to be far more effective in the reduction of drug abuse than merely punitive and shaming enforcement.
Continued education, such as that already provided by the AFLPA, the AFL and the respective clubs who employ the players, as well as ongoing support is the way to further reduce the dangers players are exposed to.