Tony Kemp: Drugs issue a bitter pill to swallow

TONY KEMP
Last updated 05:00 09/03/2014

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OPINION: The issue of drugs - both recreational and performance-enhancing - in professional sport is nothing new.

But recent reports about athletes in this part of the world misusing prescription drugs, namely sleeping pills, and mixing them with energy drinks as a way to get high, have thrust the subject back in the spotlight.

During my days as a professional rugby league player in the 1980s, drugs were always there, lurking on the fringes and in the background.

I remember hearing about one rival club where players were given - by the team doctor, no less - the option of taking pills with different colour codes, each of which denoted what effect they would have on you.

You want to be full of energy? Take the red pill. Want to stay calm and relaxed? Take the blue pill.

It was ugly stuff. But that was the era I played in and my point here is that drugs will always be a problem when it comes to sport and society as a whole.

Sure, these days there are far more stringent testing protocols in place to ensure players don't take substances that will enhance their performances.

But mixing sleeping pills with energy drinks certainly won't help them out on the paddock.

This is a social problem.

It's also a serious one, and shows the lengths that athletes will go to in a bid to unwind in an age when their every move, on and off the field, is scrutinised.

With sports organisations and footy clubs testing their players at recovery sessions after matches to see if they've been drinking, or drug testers making sure they aren't taking recreational drugs, athletes have found a new way to let their hair down in a "legal" way.

Within league circles, people have known about this practice for at least five years and few would have been surprised when the story broke late last year.

When I came on board with the New Zealand Rugby League in 2009, it was one of the concerns we identified after discovering some of our internationals doing it.

So, clearly, this is not a new issue. But it is one that, after last year's failed World Cup campaign, has become a very public one.

Parking aside the obvious concerns about the damage this practice could have on players' health, the major question we should be asking is why?

Why do some of our best and brightest young athletes feel the need to dull their emotions by taking these substances?

Let's not forget that sleeping pills can be seriously addictive and that's a real worry, too.

Just look at Aussie swimmer Grant Hackett, who recently checked himself into rehab in the United States because of an addiction to Stilnox.

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He has gone from living the dream as an Aussie sporting great to living a nightmare, and I worry that the same thing could happen to our young athletes if this practice continues.

The second question is, how do we get rid of this?

In a word, education.

Just as they are already warned about the dangers of gambling and domestic violence, athletes also need to be taught about issues such as misusing prescription drugs.

They need to shown there are better ways of dealing with problems or mental issues rather than wolfing down dangerous concoctions of pills and energy drinks.

In particular, sporting administrators must face up to the fact that this is a problem and not just at a professional level.

Young players coming through the grades must be educated about the risks long before they ever earn their first paycheque. Money needs to be spent at the grassroots of sports on genuine drug education.

Player welfare in professional sport is one of the biggest issues and education is a start.

We don't want any of our kids, brothers, sisters or sporting heroes following Hackett down a dark path that will only lead to heartache.

WARRIORS NEED TO WIN

The Warriors will get their 2014 NRL campaign under way in Sydney tonight against a Parramatta side that is promising to consign last year's wooden spoon to the waste basket.

Even with the likes of Konrad Hurrell, Kevin Locke and Thomas Leuluai out of the first-grade side for round one, the Warriors look to have some serious depth.

That's all well and good but, ultimately, they are under massive pressure to perform this year.

You can talk all you like about coach Matt Elliott needing to deliver but he's not alone.

Owners Eric Watson and Owen Glenn will not tolerate failure - at least not for long - and everyone at the club is on notice this year.

If the Warriors don't deliver some impressive results, I think you'll find everyone - from the chief executive and his front-office staff to the coaches - will be looking for new jobs.

The broom is ready to sweep through.

Avoiding it starts tonight with a composed, winning performance against the Eels.

- Sunday News

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