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An open letter to Senator Brandis concerning elite athletes and illegal recreational drugs

By Michael Gard - posted Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Dear Senator,

Well aren’t you quite the Nostrodamus? Who would have thought that after all this time pestering the AFL about their drugs policy that Ben Cousins would bob up with yet another undignified brush with the law? His timing could hardly have been better, huh?

I recently heard you say that your policy of testing elite athletes for illegal recreational drugs is not about targeting athletes simply because they are athletes. You say that the policy isn’t a question of ‘targeting’ anyone. You say that you want to test athletes because they are ‘role models’. Have I got this right?


But if elite athletes really are role models, as you say, isn’t it because they are athletes? I’ve also heard you say that that when a person becomes a professional athlete, like it or not, they become a role model. In other words, an athlete is a role model is an athlete. This makes the terms interchangeable, doesn’t it? So except if I’m a star in a sport hardly anyone cares about, say scissors-paper-rock, then you really are out to get me if I enjoy a bit of weed, aren’t you?

What I can’t understand about all of this is why no one is talking discrimination. I mean, in this litigious age you would have thought the lawyers would be queuing up. I’m not a lawyer but I reckon the case would go something like this.

First, counsel representing aggrieved athletes points out that there is no obvious reason why our government should target – oops, sorry, single out - elite athletes. After all, safety’s not the issue here is it? You plan to test all year round, don’t you Senator Brandis, not just when people are about to run onto the field.

Before resuming their seat, counsel adds that professional athletes are, in many respects, normal honest workers. Why should they have to endure constant surveillance that has little if any bearing on their ability to do their job?

It’s now your turn Senator. Your man gets to his feet, unable to conceal a confident grin. You’ve briefed him well. He’s listened to your arguments. He’s ready to go.

He reminds the court, as you have been reminding the country, that the people are with you. Sports men and women are role models; everyone knows that. Impressionable youth look up to their sports stars. Furthermore, it’s all part of the government’s highly effective zero tolerance drugs policy.


To ram home the point, counsel implores the court to think about the damage that drugs can do, to hold the image of a sports-mad teenage boy in its mind and to ask what kind of message it would send if the policy was scrapped.

Just between you and me, Senator, this argument seems a bit cute. Over the years your government has put a lot of stock in "sending messages". But the existence or absence of a policy can only "send a message" once it exists. Like the good Lord, you gaveth the policy and it is yours to taketh away. But what message did the policy send before it existed Senator? What if we had simply left sleeping dogs well alone?

Summing up, our learned friend repeats your claim that it is legitimate to hold sports stars to higher standards than other professions and that (he seems not to see the contradiction) the government’s policy only requires athletes to follow the same laws as everyone else.

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About the Author

Michael Gard is a senior lecturer in dance, physical and health education at Charles Sturt University's Bathurst campus. He is the author of two books, The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality and Ideology (with Jan Wright) and Men Who Dance: Aesthetics, Athletics and the Art of Masculinity.

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