Kids put footballers' drug-taking into perspective


Kids put footballers' drug-taking into perspectiveRugby league in Australia celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2008. The dominant winter football code in Queensland and New South Wales has touched the lives and hearts of millions. The on-field protagonists rank among the pinnacle of our nation’s most courageous and athletic sports people.

Only seven players in the history of the game have been so highly esteemed by supporters and officials to be declared "immortals". Despite only departing the playing field earlier this season after sustaining a serious neck injury, Andrew Johns was expected to be the next man to enter rugby league’s pantheon of knights.

Such an exaltation now appears remote. It is now doubtful Johns will ascend to the level occupied by the greats. This is unfortunate, as his playing talents and his influence on the sport suggest he richly deserves it. The public revelation that he has been a regular user of illicit drugs over the length of his playing career coupled with his confessed mental fragility and borderline alcoholism, complete a descent from icon to the problem child.

Johns is not the first would-be "immortal" revealed to be all-to-human. Geelong's Gary Ablett, and the West Coast Eagles' Ben Cousins are AFL champions who have been similarly exposed by revelations of drug use. Drug use is clearly rife in sport, as in society as a whole. The question of how it should be addressed, and what it does to the game, is a difficult one to answer.

The player affectionately known as "Joey" by adoring players, fans and media is now variously being described as a "cheat" and "druggie". Others have appended the tag that accompanies many a lost soul — 'a tragic figure'. As he is a former captain of the national team, it would not surprise if the insipid and overused term "un-Australian" is also hauled out by his many detractors.

As a lover of rugby league for four decades, I do not wish to defend or prosecute Andrew Johns. I admire his football legacy and I will leave it to other analysts to savage or redeem this fallen hero. But as a father of five, the eldest of whom plays junior rugby league, I do have some thoughts about sporting 'role models'.

Without doubt young people look up to sports stars and attempt to mimic them. Upon hearing the news about Johns, my football playing 10-year-old was full of questions and expressed disappointment that such a leading light in the sport he loves would resort to such behaviour. His concern echoed my frequent chats with him about the evils of taking illicit drugs and the recent advertising campaign by the federal government extolling the need for parents to 'talk with your kids about drugs'.

Apart from wanting to know whether or not his drug-taking enhanced his sporting performance (a question I answered in the negative, though I understand there is still conjecture over impact of recreational drugs, in particular cocaine, on an athlete’s performance), my son was not overly perturbed. When quizzed, he remarked that as long as Johns’ on-field efforts were not seriously up for question then it was up to the player if he was 'silly' enough to take illicit drugs.

His conclusions underlined the ability of children to see matters clearly while those older can get lost in the fog. It is also an indication that our kids are far more resilient then we realise.

Over the past week everyone from radio shock jocks to the Prime Minister has beaten Johns up for being a poor role model. The basis of their argument is that Johns owed a special duty to children to do the right thing because he was highly paid and high profile. Even the serial apologist, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, weighed into the orgy of comment on the revelations. He labelled Johns a 'dreadful role model' and while earnestly requesting people not think of him (Beattie) as being overly pious, said there was a real problem in Johns’ actions 'because of what that does for young people who look up to him.'

Illicit drugs are a major problem not just because they are anti-social and destructive to our accepted notions of community, but also because they lessen the individuals who partake in them. Regrettably, Andrew Johns is less of a person because of his dalliances with drugs. He must now be responsible for his actions, and the effect it will have on his standing in the game. For young people, though, the role models that parents, family members and dare I say it, even politicians provide is just as significant.

Tom Cranitch is a Brisbane based writer and rugby league follower. His now defunct club Brisbane Brothers will always be the love of his sporting life.



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Existing comments

We're all weak human beings, and people like Joey are pushed around by the Media and the football crowds who want results which = money and/or self-satisfaction. Give the man a chance. I, for one, will pray for him. He'll make it. He was/is honest and humble. How many of us are that?
Patrick Fahey | 07 September 2007

Whoever labelled this story "Rugby" must be a southern imposter. You Mexicans have such a wonderful blase way of disparaging our game, by NOT EVEN KNOWING the name of our great national game. there can be no more sincere form of battery than that.

Anyway, Joey was good. there has been a lot of disinformation in this story. It came out in stages, and perhaps there is more to come.

Certainly the media will make sure there is. But disinformation about various forms of mental illness - that could be quite harmful. eg. the first label used, "depression" - just did not fit the bill here. It seemed to be just the most popular label to hand at the time. So, depressed people use uppers and speed to cope, do they? Of course they don't. But the media would run with anything, and the more twists and corrections the better.
Pat Mahony | 07 September 2007

Pat Mohony, you are sadly mistaken. Neither Rugby, as in Rugby League, or Rugby Union, qualifies as Football.
Both are played by men who have necks thicker than their heads.
Neither require players to use their feet, except as the most token of gestures.
Neither qualifies as football.
No one besides New South Welshmen, and about half of Queensland, would dare consider either Rugby our NATIONAL game.
Australia is composed of 6 states and 2 territories, last I checked, and RUGBY can only wholely claim one of them. And even then...
So give the Mexicans, who play our NATIONAL, INDIGENOUS game a break.
RUGBY will be dead within twenty years.

Andy Johnson | 07 September 2007

As a New Zealand based league lover and fellow Brother's devotee I must say I greatly enjoy the league themed articles by Tom Cranitch. What he lacked as a player he certainly makes up for as an author (although he was a pretty mean cricketing all-rounder by all reports). I do question however his conclusion that Joey is less of a person because of his dalliance with drugs. It appears clear that there are mental health issues at hand here, and there is a wealth of research that displays a strong correlation between mental illness and drug abuse. Rather than vilifying one of the greats of our game we should be extending the hand of friendship and support to enable this legend to seek the help he needs and make a full recovery. I too speak regularly to my children about the dangers of drugs - both legal and illicit (the difference is often only in the legislation - drugs like valium are equally as potent and venomous). The example of Andrew Johns is one that I can point to illustrate to my children the wider complexities of drug use and abuse in a wholistic attempt to educate them about the issues, rather than simply adopt the simplistic approach of labelling the man a 'druggie'.
brendensheehan | 13 September 2007

its their choice to take drugs, as much as anyone else. let them live with it and it's their problem.

chris | 14 November 2007


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