Column: Don’t name and shame football’s druggies

Take a young footballer, give him head-spinning success, wads of
cash and an excess of spare time when he is not playing or
training. Into that volatile mix, now add a nightclub, way too much
champagne and a few vampirish hangers-on who pretend they are the
rising star’s new best friends. One of them produces a wrap of
cocaine or a stick of weed and the fatal words: ”Try this.”

Invariably, some do.

So, you ask, who are these foolish footballers and do they play
for my team?

To which the answer is: None of your business.

For years, England’s Football Association has subjected players
to out-of-competition tests for so-called ‘social drugs’ – cocaine,
ecstasy, marijuana and suchlike. Unsurprisingly, it catches quite a
few, too: 19 for cocaine, 22 for marijuana and 2 for ecstasy since
2003 – which only goes to show that football isn’t immune from the
ills of the wider society in which all of us live.

The FA won’t say who these players are and this week took some
heat in a documentary on English TV’s Channel 4 for keeping those
names secret. But there are several reasons why its silence makes
sense.

For starters, the international anti-doping rules that govern
most sports only take issue with these particular drugs when
athletes test positive for them during competition. The reason for
banning them in a sports event is that stimulants like cocaine and
amphetamines can boost performance and because it is simply stupid,
dangerous and against the whole notion of healthy endeavor to
sprint, jump, drive, dive, kick, shoot or whatever if you’re
high.

Football is bound by these regulations, too, and the FA says it
has absolutely no compunction about naming players who violate them
by testing positive in-competition for social drugs.

That was the case with Shaun Newton. Then with West Ham, he
tested positive for cocaine after an FA Cup semifinal against
Middlesbrough in 2006 and was suspended for seven months. So, in
Newton’s case and others like it, the use of a social drug by an
athlete in-competition is and should be our business – because the
anti-doping regulations that govern sport make it so and because we
have a right to know if an event was skewed by a competitor with an
unnatural advantage.

But, if these drugs are taken out of competition, these rules do
not apply. An athlete who snorts cocaine on holiday will most
likely be breaking the law of the land but, as far as sport is
concerned, it’s not an anti-doping violation. For that reason, the
United States Anti-Doping Agency and its British counterpart do not
test for these drugs out of competition. Doing so would waste
resources and there’d be no point.

But, even though it is not obligated to, the FA does. In doing
so, it is going the extra mile to protect players and the image of
the game. Furthermore, in the dozens of out-of-competition cases
involving cocaine and marijuana in English football in the past
eight years, many of the players were suspended for several months
– which, again, goes way beyond what the World Anti-Doping Agency’s
code requires.

Since these are not violations of that WADA code, the FA isn’t
obliged to name the players and chooses not to. The FA says players
are offered drug counseling and assessed by treatment specialists.
It argues that naming the players could hinder their rehabilitation
and, if they are addicted, efforts to medically treat them.

”We go far beyond what we are required to do,” Jenni Kennedy,
the FA’s head of off-field regulation, said in a telephone
interview.

”We recognize that young men with high income and a job that
gives them a lot of spare time are obviously at risk of social
drugs in our society,” she added. ”The majority of players who
test positive for social drugs out of competition are very young
players, early on in their career, who have succumbed to peer
pressure, usually after having had a few drinks and it’s a one-off
mistake.”

If that is the case, then it’s hard to see what arguments could
convincingly be made in these situations for naming and shaming
them. Yes, these drugs are illegal, but being young, rich and
stupid are not, so does the public really have the right to know?
Naming them might sell more tabloids that relish and sometimes feed
such scandals. But that, given their sometimes intolerable methods,
is as good a reason as any for protecting the players in these
cases. There’s also the possibility that identifying vulnerable
players could steer drug dealers in their direction.

Michele Verroken, the former director of anti-doping at UK
Sport, said that in the 1990s, dealers specifically targeted
footballers at Charlton Athletic, grooming the ”youngsters to use
drugs because they had the money to buy.”

”There was a whole group that had attached itself to the
footballers, the youngsters, the apprentices,” she said in a phone
interview. ”We did a big program around Charlton Football Club
trying to get the players to really amend their lifestyles, in
order to ensure that they didn’t fall foul of people who seemed to
be their best friends and really weren’t.”

There is at least one case where, perhaps, the FA should have
named a player. He refused a drug test in the 2007-2008 season.
That is a violation of the WADA anti-doping code, and he was
suspended for two years. But Kennedy says there was a ”serious and
significant risk” that the player might hurt himself if he was
identified publicly and ”a lot of medical evidence to support that
and psychiatric evidence.” So, in that case, he wasn’t named.

But, otherwise, ”the FA would have no problem at all naming any
player that breaks that WADA code,” she said.

As for the others, the social drug users caught out of
competition and who don’t have to be named: ”They are punished for
that mistake and are subjected to two years of target testing so
that we are aware should they ever make that mistake again,” she
said.

”It’s to allow them to get the necessary help that they need
and usually it’s just advice and counseling on how to handle those
risk situations that they sometimes find themselves in. And then
they can return to the sport having served a sanction.”

Unnamed and better for it.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow
him at twitter.com/johnleicester