The media hysteria surrounding the West Coast Eagles and the recreational drug use of several members of their squad throughout the 2000’s has well and truly jumped the shark. Speculation that the drug habits of the players ‘tainted’ their 2006 premiership is quite frankly ridiculous. While I fully endorse the battering that the club has received in regards to concerns for players’ welfare as humans, to suggest that regular consumption of drugs such as ice, cocaine and others had a performance enhancing effect on their success is ludicrous.
Let us break the argument that the media has waved so loudly and with such verve in the past week. Regular consumption of these drugs aided performance in the grand final. Barry Round, god bless, has come out and commented on how the Eagles ran out the 2006 grand final in much better condition than the Swans, insinuating that the drug culture surrounding the group was utilised on game day to aid their victory. Barry. Mate. Firstly, we will address the acute affects of taking such drugs mentioned earlier on the body – that is, the immediate effects within hours, as has been implied.
Reports on ice use in suburban football focused on the aggression of the players, and their superhuman feats of athleticism. Aside from the subjective nature of reports like this, they have failed to take into account many factors. Firstly, the psychotic nature of the drugs consumed. While respiratory conditions may increase as this is consumed – increased heart rate, respiration and what not, the psychotic and neurological consequences of consumption far outweigh these benefits. Ice users report feeling more confident in making singular decisions, and planning things after initial consumption. Do not confuse feelings of confidence, and outcome of actually making good decisions.Hyper-focusing on one thing is not beneficial to a footballer, regardless of the level, who has to weigh up several different outcomes of several different available options, constantly changing by the second. While increased superhuman strength might be more noticeable at lower suburban levels, where overall skill is decreased, to reason it as a performance enhancer would be to underestimate the mental skill required of any person of any level who pulls on the boots. Surely we are all aware by now that it takes all types to influence a game!
Hallucinations are part of the package too. And poor decision making, and poor decision processing speed, and an inability to assess many options. If I was a West Coast Eagle and somehow – given the systematic violation of all sorts of strong pulling ethical responsibilities of club health officials, and the many neutral security aspects of football games – saw my teammate consuming ice or other stimulants like cocaine pre game or at half time on Grand Final day, I would sooner club him over the head with a large slab of wood than let him run back out and ruin my chance at a premiership as his hyper-aggression and focus drew him away from team plans and structures, and onto chasing, clobbering and breaking through packs single-mindedly hunting the ball. I haven’t even included the irritability and paranoia that immediately swamps regular users – as so many have painted the Eagles players.
Other comments have suggested this use of drugs helped them get a better fitness base during pre season training over many years. It’s a wonder that the users turned up for training – and as we found out, the heavy users like Cousins ended up missing training sessions. Any gains made from using a stimulant and running PB’s at training would be lost as the chronic use of these drugs distracted them, caused physiological irregularities like heart rhythm issues (one of the more common acute and long term effects of stimulant use), and decreased their appetite, resulting in poor nutrition – the bedrock of any elite training improvement or maintenance program. Using these drugs, even just a few times a week for an extended period – let’s say more than 3 or 4 months – is enough to prolong the acute effects into chronic issues. Agitation and paranoia, loss of concentration, diminished nutrition levels and muscle waste are all at risk for the players.
The reason for use, as confessed by Ben Cousins in his book, was often to extend the party, to keep drinking. If anything, this group’s drug use conspired to undermine their success. We can continue on the sheer ludicrousness of these arguments but it is futile, as the people making these statements are doing so on emotion and dragging in money from headlines. Claims like Round’s that they ran out the game better is to ignore their clearly ahead of the time training and conditioning emphasis on running, and the natural athletic talent of most of them. Ben Cousins, Daniel Kerr, Chris Judd and Dean Cox were some of the finest athletes to play football ever – Judd and Kerr were state and national athletic champions.
On Grand Final day you could put your house, your children’s house and the next 10 generation’s houses on every single player being tested for performance enhancing (and illicit) drug use. Any positive tests would not be swept under the carpet. In all seriousness, the West Coast Football Club’s administration has clearly stuffed up, in terms of looking out for their employee’s health issues. The drug culture at the Eagles has ruined lives, undoubtedly. Responsibility always comes back to the person making the choices – clearly the hierarchy could have intervened, but PR was more important. The poor choices in their personal lives were only a hindrance on their ability to win a premiership.
There is no black mark on this premiership, aside from the social and human cost one. The hype around the issue surrounds the stigma associated with recreational drug use as athletes, and supposed role models. If the true drug habits of current players were as well known as this group’s, every year the premiers would be questioned. You need only go out to a swanky nightspot or know someone within an AFL club to understand the widespread use. This is perhaps reflective of the physical pressures on players now – alcohol isn’t doing them favours – but that is a discussion for another day.
So, Barry Round, KB, Barry Hall, and the other journos picking off the sad people who pulled it together with the majority of healthy and law abiding squad members. It’s almost a miracle that West Coast did win a premiership, given the obvious scale of debauchery that went on. This team’s performance was not enhanced. Any possible athletic enhancement is overshadowed by the dangerous short and long term health issues. The difference between recreational issues and linking this to game day consumption is drawing a sensationalist bow, and fails to recognise that for all the shortcomings these athletes had as humans, they were proud and determined footballers.
They were a gifted group who trained hard, and combined their work ethic with skill and system. Their achievements do not spare them admonishment though; while most of us dream of winning a premiership, at what cost do you place a healthy human life? What a shame some will live regrettably terrible and probably shorter lives as a result of introducing themselves to the entrapment of drug culture. Do not question the player’s achievements – instead, question their careless attitude to the longer, more important game of life.
**I would encourage anyone to do their own research on the acute and long term effects of use of stimulants like ice and cocaine. It does not read well, is a growing scourge on our society – from widely accepted cocaine to stigmatised ice – and should be avoided at all costs. These papers put it all into layman’s terms and condense it nicely – http://nceta.flinders.edu.au/files/9014/3339/5938/EN597.pdf ; http://www.fds.org.au/images/cocaine.pdf – and are based on clinical research.