The NHS website advises that one of the most unpleasant reactions to cocaine are "involuntary jerking movements in the body". Spot on there. Whenever sporting governing bodies encounter the evil powder, their knees – and indeed, those of the media – happen to jerk so violently that all sense of comparable justice and ethical perspective are knocked flying.
The last month at Bath Rugby has been a headcase in point. Rarely have the twisted values of our profes- sional pursuits been so exposed and rarely have these distortions been so ignored. In the rush to scream of the drugs menace stalking our dressing rooms the great and the righteous of this trade have drawn a veil over the double standards in operation.
Take these two incidents which occurred within two weeks of each other at end-of-season parties. Justin Harrison, an Australian lock, admits to bragging about taking cocaine and then snorting it in a London pub toilet and is banned from rugby for eight months. David Smith, a Samoan winger, is arrested and later proven guilty for being twice the legal alcohol limit when crashing his car over a central reservation and into parked cars. Smith has been banned for driving for nine months, but as yet has not been banned from playing rugby. Apparently the New Zealand Rugby Union are still deciding how to act.
If Smith does receive a playing ban he would be forgiven for looking at the precedents and questioning: why? In January, the England World Cup winner, Mike Tindall was banned from driving for three years for being over the limit. It was the second time Tindall had fallen foul of his country's drink-driving laws. The playing ban he received for again bringing his sport into any perceived disrepute? None. What exactly are the rugby authorities saying here?
Everyone but the pedantic acknowledges that cocaine is not a performance-enhancing substance and alongside cannabis and ecstasy falls under the banner of "recreational drugs". To consume it is illegal in this country, just as it is illegal to drink-drive. Common assault is also illegal, as the then Gloucester fly-half, Ryan Lamb, discovered when being fined £1,000 in March for punching a fan outside a nightclub. The length of his rugby suspension? Lamb was back in Cherry and White the following Saturday. Violence is considered just as big a problem on Britain's streets as drugs; indeed the two are thought to be indelibly linked. Yet not a whisper of punitive action from central HQ.
Naturally, the Twickenham overlords do not consider it acceptable for their players to commit any crime. But in showing such intolerance to one offence and such apparent indifference to so many others, that is the message being given out. To claim any degree of moral authority in the light of this hypocrisy is ludicrous.
Believe it, this is all about stigma. Sponsors and indeed parents are prone to run a mile when the word "cocaine" is mentioned. Fair enough. And it is understandable that Bath do not wish to be viewed as the Colombian representatives of the Premiership. But the Rugby Football Union must surely take a broader, less hysterical view.
The problem is that their sport has signed up to the strict World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) code to administer their drugs sanctions and this is where the anomalies within their ethical judgements, and non-judgements, were created. It was plain wrong that Matt Stevens was given a two-year-ban for testing positive for cocaine earlier this year. Stevens was a drugs addict, not a drugs cheat. How would the RFU have acted if he had been a gambling addict or, more to the point, an alcohol addict?
Granted, the Wada rules dictated the length of the Stevens suspension and the RFU had no choice. However, they did have a choice with Harrison, due to Wada's policy of only testing for recreational drugs on "competition" days. But as cocaine is not performance-enhancing and thus has nothing to do with competition, they could hardly let off Harrison in the light of Stevens' punishment.
The RFU do not seem to have an answer for this grotesque inconsistency. Yet they are taking action. Rugby union professionals in England are set to become the first in the world to be tested for social drugs outside of competition. Those that fail will not be subject to the Wada ban; there will be a "three strikes and you're out" philosophy and during this process they will try to counsel, educate and essentially help the miscreant. That's if the miscreant is caught on, say, a Monday and not a matchday. On the latter the RFU's hands are tied. It will be an instant two-years, Wada-style. How ridiculous is that?
What are the RFU to do? All they could do is persuade the other members of the International Rugby Board to sign off from the Wada code. For some reason Wada continues to maintain that "drugs are drugs" and makes no provision to separate the "recreational". Of course, the real argument is "why test for recreational drugs at all?"; but the RFU, like most other sporting authorities, are already way down the road and would be accused of going soft on drugs if attempting any sort of U-turn.
Instead the RFU will do their own cocaine-testing, effectively having two sets of rules for the same "crime" and so the moral mindset of this sport will become more confused. Is that really possible for a game which gives out eight-week bans for gouging? So Schalk Burger's threatening of Luke Fitzgerald eyesight is adjudged to be 13 times less serious than Stevens' own personal cocaine use... enough said.Reuse content