Paul Lewis on sport
Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: NRL funny business no joke

League fans have hit back at drug accusations which have caused much turmoil in the NRL. Photo / Getty Images
League fans have hit back at drug accusations which have caused much turmoil in the NRL. Photo / Getty Images

The jokes flowed after some unknown Cronulla Sharks players were recently accused of taking a performance-enhancing substance for horses.

What's the Sharks' favourite TV show? Neigh-bours. Who did the Sharks hope to attract back to the NRL to deal with the controversy? David Gallop. When a young Sharks player and his girlfriend got married, they honeymooned in Italy for a week. Their hotel receptionist says: "We have two suites available; would you like the bridal?" "No thanks," says the player. "I'll just hold her ears till she gets the hang of it."

You get the picture. It's worse than that old line from "super coach" Jack Gibson who said that waiting for the Sharks to win the NRL was like leaving the porch light on for Harold Holt; worse than the joke, when Cronulla were going through their most winless period, that the club had been rocked by the discovery of some white powder on their training ground. When the team investigated further, they found the white substance was the try line.

Okay, that's enough. It's not just the Sharks coming under fire now. Manly may also cop it after revelations that some players are using calf's blood to enhance performance (which is, remarkably, not illegal as long as it is not injected intravenously as opposed to in a muscle). Just wait for the milking jokes and tales of Manly players buying homes in Mooloolaba.

But it goes wider than that now. The anti-doping authorities have given notice they want to interview 31 NRL players. League's image as a good, honest, working class man's game is under pressure. Even if those of us on the outside are seeing an awful lot of smoke and precious little fire, it's clear that the much-maligned ASADA thrust into the use of performance-enhancing substances in Australian sport has, and will, pierce some soft tissue.

There have already been casualties - the 14 unnamed players under suspicion at Cronulla, the suspension of coach Shane Flanagan (now restored) and the sacking of four members of the coaching staff, plus the resignation of board chairman Damian Irvine.

The four staffers deny giving the players banned supplements, allegedly without their knowledge, and covering it up; the latter said some players were injected with drugs promoting muscle growth in horses.

Rabid league fans - as opposed to those who enjoy both codes - have often held up their game to be the sport of real men, the greatest test of physical exertion and endeavour. Rugby players were pussies by comparison. Feats of real endurance were to be found in league. Now the contention is that some of the machismo may have come out of a bottle. That, sadly, diminishes some of the genuine heroics of the past.

Those squawking about the lack of evidence have a good point (so far) but are ignoring the fact that such investigations have an awful lot of ground to cover and hearsay to convert into fact; it takes time and precision.

Lance Armstrong famously never failed a drugs test; neither did Marion Jones. The drugs agencies have admitted that testing is a flawed instrument for detection and deterrence.

They nailed Armstrong and Jones through the testimony of others; something similar is happening in Australian sport right now.

This seems to have sparked off some unseemly whimpering by some pro-league commentators, complaining of a witch-hunt, the disappearance of the presumption of innocence and the need for any investigation to be performed in a "caring" manner to "build trust" with clubs and players; an aggressive investigation doing more harm than good.

"No one died, the sun still rises," one wrote, "and why try and wreck a club or a sport? The players under the gun may well have acted out of ignorance."

This would be funny if it wasn't so depressingly naive and steeped in favour towards league. I feel a Tui billboard coming on...

It is widely held that all athletes who actually have a brain are responsible for what goes in their body. Why would league be any different? Such a rule allows us to escape some of the most ridiculous excuses ever offered since US sprinter Dennis Mitchell blamed illegal levels of testosterone in his blood in 1998 on having sex four times with his wife because: "It was her birthday; the lady deserved a treat."

Some observers even espouse the theory that "safe" performance-enhancing drugs should be permitted - a better scenario, in their eyes, than constantly casting doubts over sporting heroes and heroines.

That ignores the fact that most top athletes not on the juice are against doping; most sensible people recognise that sporting activities have developed with the same sort of moral codes that grew up with and govern our civilisation.

Giving in to the dopers revokes the unwritten law between athletes in any sport and fans, sponsors and administrators. It represents a victory for dishonesty and deceit; decrying efforts to stamp it out is a fine example of tired old hack-itis and weary disregard for what remains of the honour of sport.

In 2003, seven male tennis players tested positive for a steroid at the same time. All players were cleared because it was said they took the offending material from trainers unknowingly, with the tennis body ATP accepting the blame in a legal switcheroo later criticised by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

However, that precedent may allow some legal manoeuvring in this saga, though the NRL is preparing for the worst, with contingency plans for a depopulated competition and grand final if players and teams are affected by drugs allegations and/or offences.

Whatever happens, the war on drugs in sport should still continue to be a war - and not a surrender to idiocy or obfuscation.

"Wrecking" a sport seems unlikely but, even if it did, at least what rose in its place would be more a sporting contest than a chemistry lesson. Or a horse laugh.

- Herald on Sunday

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