James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Why some footballers who test positive should be helped, not harangued

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Yes, I know. Footballers can be tough to love at times.

They also, as the recent spate of failed drugs tests demonstrates, have an unfortunate knack of complicating their own already difficult PR.

Jake Livermore of Hull City tested positive for cocaine earlier this month

Jake Livermore of Hull City tested positive for cocaine earlier this month

Financially comfortable young men, in this age of austerity and zero hours contracts, where ordinary folk doing truly important jobs are being asked to pay for the reckless largesse of cocksure bankers, are never going to receive a particularly sympathetic hearing whenever they stuff-up. The opprobrium flooding some corners of cyberspace, by ‘Disgusted of Darnall’ and ‘Outraged of Orchard Park’ is testament to that.

But in this instance, and mindful that folk, no matter how they earn a living, are innocent until proven guilty, should professional sportspeople be sacked or face lengthy suspensions if they are found to have ingested, either knowingly or otherwise, a prohibited substance?

Well, yes and no. Arbitrary, draconian sanctions always resonate well in the court of public opinion. The trouble is, as circumstances surrounding Jake Livermore, Aaron McCarey and Jose Baxter illustrate, real life is seldom black or white.

There are, I think, important distinctions to be made in the debate surrounding drugs and, in this instance, football. Including one between chemicals taken, quite deliberately, to improve performance. And those which, regardless of our own personal sensibilities and value systems, many people believe make their nights go with a bit more bang.

Jose Baxter has denied any wrongdoing after failing a drugs test � copyright : Blades Sports Photography

Jose Baxter has denied any wrongdoing after failing a drugs test � copyright : Blades Sports Photography

The FA appear to have drawn the same conclusion as a section on its website, outlining the “fundamental aims” of its anti-doping programme suggests: “To uphold and preserve the ethics of sport. To safeguard the physical health and mental integrity of players. To ensure that all players have an equal chance.”

It is for precisely these reasons that the governing body differentiates between in and out of competition tests and then, in those cases where guilt is established, punishes accordingly. Quite correctly too.

In competition refers to post-match situations while out of competition screening takes place during training sessions and at a player’s home address.

“The FA conducts tests on players via the collection of blood and urine samples,” its spokesperson continues. “All tests are collected by Doping Control Officers and Chaperones, who are accredited to World Anti-Doping Code standards. They are assisted by a Football Association Supervising Officer who acts as a facilitator for all involved in the testing process. Samples collected under the The FA Anti-Doping Programme are only ever analysed at WADA-accredited laboratories. This ensures that players and The FA can have full confidence in the accuracy of a test result.”

Aaron McCarey has been temporarily suspended by Wolverhampton Wanderers

Aaron McCarey has been temporarily suspended by Wolverhampton Wanderers

Livermore, unlike McCarey and Baxter, is facing a two year suspension because he failed an in competition procedure. Even then, without wishing to make light of the dangers drugs can pose to health or the integrity of sport, it is entirely possible the traces of cocaine it revealed had any discernible effect upon his performance at Crystal Palace in April. Cocaine highs, according to medical experts, last for between five and 90 minutes. But it can be detected for up to four days in a urine sample and two in blood.

The harshest sanctions must, surely, be reserved for those who deliberately seek to influence a result?

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which places illegal drugs into three different categories, illustrates perfectly why it is a mistake to gauge breaches of sporting ethics using the same measures as those employed across wider society.

It is impossible to argue that using cocaine or ecstasy could seriously improve a footballer’s performance. Yet these are, quite understandably, Class A substances. Anabolic steroids, which most definitely would, are Class C. And, while it is illegal to supply them in this country, possessing them for personal use is not.

One size, when it comes to judging the seriousness of an offence, clearly does not fit all.

It is for precisely the same reason that legal drugs, including alcohol, are prohibited in some sports and not others. Nobody could argue that a drunk table tennis player would be capable of causing the same degree of carnage as, say, someone carrying a 12 bore shotgun.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales reveals a total of 157,641 offences for drugs possession by police during the period between October 2013 and September last year. It also reported that 12.9 per cent of 16-24 year-old’s said they had used Class A’s at some point in their lives while around a third of those aged 16-59, approximately 11.2m people, had taken a substance in Class A, B or C.

If they all been caught, if using drugs should result in immediate dismissal as many of those proposing what constitutes a fitting punishment for footballers who test positive claim, unemployment figures would go through the roof.

The argument they should be treated no differently to Joe Public is compelling. Most adults whose behaviour prevented them from fulfilling contractual obligations to an employer for a significant period of time would probably expect to lose their job.

Then again, responsible employers are fond of telling us how they like to invest in people. Which implies a duty of care, within certain boundaries, beyond the office, factory floor or football pitch. Not the right to simply discard them whenever they make a mistake.

Yes, many readers of this column will protest that, because they are unlikely to benefit from such enlightened thinking, well-recompensed footballers most definitely shouldn’t. The same twisted logic that castigates members of one profession from going on strike over conditions or wages because others have seen their own representations turned down.

Banning Livermore, McCarey or Baxter, if their charges are upheld, will not serve any real purpose. Instead, if guilt is proven and recreational rather than performance enhancing drugs are the cause of the problem, it would be far more constructive to provide them with education, advice and help. Obviously, there must be some sort of punishment but the game’s response should focus primarily on rehabilitation. Not ostracism.

Unfortunately, we live in an age were being labelled a ‘do-gooder’ is an insult. Which is another great shame.

Twitter: @JamesShield1

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