Guardians in a muddle over dope

Dave Hadfield argues that the Rugby League response to the recreational use of cannabis was badly misguided
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The Independent Online
The game will not greatly miss Barry Ledger if he decides against resuming his rugby league career after his six-month ban for taking cannabis.

At 32, the Swinton winger is already near the end of his playing days and his suspension is not a tragedy. It is, however, the product of misguided and muddled thinking by the guardians of a sport desperately anxious to be seen as cleaner than clean.

Some rugby league players smoke dope. There is nothing surprising about that; in Britain, Australia and, perhaps more than anywhere, New Zealand, many of them come from cultures where it is a drug used as casually as coffee.

A Great Britain player once complained, only half in jest, that he had gone into a Test match high as a kite, simply through sharing a hotel room with one of the game's most epic consumers of the exotic weed.

If his coach had caught him lighting up on the day of a match, he might well have had something to say about it. The broader question, however, is whether it is any business of the sporting authorities what a player does in his spare time.

Cannabis has no implications for performance and, unlike the taking of muscle-building steroids, it cannot be regarded as cheating. Ah, but it's illegal, you can argue. Indeed it is, despite the view of most people under 50 that it should not be; but so are drunken driving, causing an affray while intoxicated and not paying your council tax. The Rugby League does not suspend players for any of those misdemeanours.

In common with most sports, rugby league has a potential drug problem. The saddest aspect of the Jamie Bloem case was that the vastly-improved form of the Doncaster full-back, now rightly suspended for two years, was such an outstanding advert for the effectiveness of steroids.

In a game where extra power and endurance is such an obvious bonus, it is inevitable that others will be tempted to take the risk.

All the energy of the drug-testing programme that the Sports Council carries out on behalf of the League should be concentrated on that area, as well as on the assorted "uppers", which are an integral part of many young men's social lives and could seep into their sporting activities.

In the international sphere, there is much work to be done on harmonising the regulations in the major league-playing countries, thus allaying the suspicion whispered on the recent tour that the Australians were "up to something".

Alongside concerns like that, the question of whether Barry Ledger has been interspersing his pints of lager with the odd joint is worthy of consideration for six minutes rather than the six months for which he has been sidelined for the rest of the season.

As he and everyone else at his disciplinary hearing in Leeds knew, he could have walked out of the League's headquarters, crossed Chapeltown Road and bought enough grass in broad daylight to keep him and the entire crowd at Gigg Lane in a state of euphoria that would make Swinton look like a team of world-beaters.

That is the futility of the League taking a sledgehammer to a matter of personal preference that is out of their control and none of their business.

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