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All will learn from Keeffe and Thomas' harsh lesson

Lachie Keeffe speaks at a press conference, accompanied by Neil Balme, Gary Pery and Josh Thomas - ${keywords}
Lachie Keeffe speaks at a press conference, accompanied by Neil Balme, Gary Pery and Josh Thomas

AS COLLINGWOOD CEO Gary Pert noted, the game changed for all athletes when Collingwood pair Lachlan Keeffe and Josh Thomas returned a positive test for clenbuterol, a substance banned under the WADA code.

The duo had unwittingly ingested the banned substance when they took illicit drugs on a day off, just hours before being randomly tested at the club.

At the time, it was a risk many players were prepared to take.

Game has changed on players, drugs: Pert

The worst they imagined could happen was that they would record a strike as part of the illicit drugs code, and be target tested and receive further education.

Their names would be kept anonymous under the illicit drugs policy that players voluntarily agreed to in order to protect the health and wellbeing of their brethren. 

Education sessions reminding players of the risk that illicit drugs could harbour performance-enhancing substances were clear enough, but until it happened the message would not resonate with some people.

That is no longer the case.

The careers of Keeffe and Thomas have been derailed and remain uncertain, although they will be rookies next season.

Pies Keeffe, Thomas accept two-year bans

Every player in the AFL – and any player on the fringes –now have the message: taking illicit drugs out of competition can put your career at risk as they may be cut with a banned substance.

The health risk is self-evident.

The worst most will think of Keeffe and Thomas is that they were naïve. 

Many will think 'there but for the grace of god go I' and take heed of the lesson.

Collingwood seems to think applying tougher penalties to players who test positive for illicit drugs under the AFL's policy would have stopped the players from making, in hindsight, what became a stupid choice.

Pert says tougher sanctions would lead players to the conclusion that if you want to be part of the AFL you don't take illicit drugs, end of story.

That view assumes the policy should be mandatory and the only question up for debate is the penalties attached.

It also assumes supporters will accept their best player being banned for a transgression that may have happened for a thousand different reasons. 

The AFLPA says players' support of the voluntary policy is contingent on it being in line with the health model, and should not be taken for granted.

The AFL's chief medical officer, Dr Peter Harcourt, has expressed his frustration that the policy has never been given the deserved credit for changing player behaviour positively, despite it being bashed from pillar to post in the court of public opinion.   

As a result, a working group involving the AFL, the AFLPA and club representatives is reviewing the voluntary policy, building an evidence base before making rash decisions.

Players have agreed to be hair tested this season for statistical purposes to determine the level of illicit drug use, and the AFL has agreed to not publicly release the annual number of positive tests. 

The AFLPA says privacy remains a key priority.

Pert says the case highlights, at the very least, the need for clubs to receive information earlier about who has been caught 'doing drugs' via testing rather than waiting until the damage is done.

Like everyone he wants to prevent problems, rather than be forced to solve them.

And despite some significant misgivings in the past, clubs are genuinely concerned about the welfare of those on their list. 

So there is some logic to that approach but from what can be gathered, no one at Collingwood would have imagined that Keeffe and Thomas were likely to indulge, regardless of how much information clubs had about who was at risk. 

We don't know that, of course, but we can assume that is possible.   

Having said that, even the most ardent advocates who define the use of illicit drugs as a health issue admit the world has changed significantly. One key player admitted to AFL.com.au earlier in the year that the battle was being lost.

The policy has been a good one and isn't to blame for what has happened to these two players. 

Their lesson has been the harshest imaginable and is likely to have a bigger impact than any policy, regardless of its style.

The debate should be ongoing and a willingness to adjust to changing circumstances ever present.

As long as those reviewing the policy have that approach, the best answer to a difficult – and sometimes impossible – problem will be in place. 

And the sad case of Keeffe and Thomas will continue to teach in ways very few education sessions ever could.