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Self-reporting a good idea in theory

Peter Ryan  January 30, 2013 10:22 PM

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AFLPA CEO Matt Finnis

ALTHOUGH the self-reporting mechanism appears destined to be one element of the AFL Illicit Drugs Policy that is changed following Wednesday's drug summit, its inclusion in the policy was, contrary to what seems to have become popular perception, far from a mistake.

Many experts consider self-reporting a legitimate mechanism to widen the net of an illicit drug testing program and a process more likely to lead to a better understanding of the extent of drug use among AFL players than to be an element widely abused.

Unfortunately, when perception takes hold that self-reporting is being abused – as it has in recent weeks even if in reality the number doing so is small – the integrity of the program is weakened and change becomes necessary.

That perception possibly explains why AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou and the AFLPA acknowledged the mechanism had the potential to be exploited and therefore ways to tighten it should be examined as part of the annual review of the policy, that in 2013 included many more voices than normal.

Given that Demetriou said the exploitation of the self-reporting mechanism was not as widespread as had been reported, that seems the logical explanation for such action.

Because when you understand what is attached to self-reporting, it becomes clearer it is not a mechanism designed to allow players to simply escape detection. Nor is it merely, as it has been perceived by many, as a Monday morning phone call to headquarters to clear the decks while the head clears.

Any player who voluntarily reports illicit drug use to the AFL Medical Officer is subject to the same elements of the program as a player who records a first strike.

The player has a conversation with doctors about what happened, what led to the drug use, how they can make better decisions and decisions are made about what support the individual might need to abstain from taking drugs.

AFL doctors understand better what is happening and players can be target tested and counselled to minimise their chances of transgressing again.

The non-recording of a strike if they self-report encourages players to deal with the issue when and if it happens - but it doesn't exactly absolve them of responsibility.

If a player self-reports on more than one occasion, then the warning bells ring loudly and a player will be subject to more intense counselling and potentially not be able to play while the treatment for what is obviously becoming a problem continues.

They are also less likely to be missed in future testing if they continue their drug use, as they are being target tested.

Alcohol also an issue: AFL

So, self-reporting delivered with the right intent – to seek help as we all do when we provide full disclosure on any issue to our local GP – might save both a life and a career.

Because the reality is, no testing mechanism will catch everyone.

That's why even the self reporting issue needs to be considered carefully so players can feel comfortable seeking help and are willing to address issues upfront rather than run the gauntlet.

As AFLPA CEO Matt Finnis pointed out, the Illicit Drugs Policy – a policy that players have voluntarily agreed to be bound by – increases rather than hides understanding of the issue.

"What we have is some data based upon some testing that … gives us some really strong insights from the players who are detected and that have an intervention that informs us as an industry [and allows us] to be able to make some informed decisions on our policy," he said.

Part of that understanding has come from information gleaned from self-reporting.

Even Collingwood CEO Gary Pert, who drove the need for a summit, said in Wednesday's press conference an increase in the numbers of players detected is not necessarily a bad thing because it gives "doctors … the opportunity to communicate [with the player] and confront that issue."

While change looks to be on the way, the working party must carefully consider how to effect the change.

The policy needs to improve from the focus on its detail so those who genuinely want help with drug use can still access medical support without fear, while those who want to exploit the system do not have the opportunity to do so and therefore undermine the integrity of the program.