Ban will not end sports stars attempting to get high legally.
Sometimes, scandal and the game of league appear to be inextricably linked. Hardly a month seems to go by without a player or a team in the National Rugby League or the international arena becoming embroiled in an off-field incident of one type or another. In such an environment, it is probably unsurprising that the reaction to any new perceived transgression tends to combine speed and a sledgehammer. Last month, following the revelation that some players were mixing sleeping pills and energy drinks to gain a high similar to recreational drugs, the New Zealand Rugby League said players guilty of the practice would be ineligible for the Kiwis in future. The NRL, for its part, announced plans to test players for two classes of prescription drugs. Such a response may well be too hasty and heavy-handed.
The practice first came to notice through its use by a handful of Kiwi players at last year's World Cup. Subsequently, the Warriors doctor, John Mayhew, said the abuse of prescription medicines was widespread in the NRL.
Last week, it was also revealed that three days before a quarter-final against Argentina at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, All Blacks Cory Jane and Israel Dagg consumed sleeping pills and beer. According to the New Zealand Rugby Union, they ended up tipping over the edge and going out to a bar, where they were apparently spotted swaying and slurring their words. Chief executive Steve Tew said no red flags had been raised at the time because sleeping pills were not an issue then.
All that has now changed. In addition to league's reaction, the rugby union is inquiring to ascertain whether it has a problem. That is sensible, and so, too, was the intervention yesterday by the All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen. He acknowledged the issue had to be confronted, but said the best way was to educate players. There had, said Hansen, to be a way for them to relax and get off "the Ferris wheel of continuous playing". The misuse of sleeping pills was not, however, the way because it could be harmful both for the player and for the team's immediate performance.
The All Blacks coach was right to recognise the need for players to relax. That very requirement led to players resorting to sleeping pills as a way to get around alcohol and drug policies. They are not banned by the World Anti-Doping Authority. There are several good reasons for this. First, sleeping pills have a valid use in the case of players wanting, for example, to sleep on long flights or after a match that finished late at night. Equally, they do not directly enhance performance as the likes of anabolic steroids do. Yet they can easily find themselves in the same category if the net is cast too wide or too indiscriminately.
In that context, the case of Jesse Ryder is instructive. Last year, the cricketer was banned for six months for taking weight-loss pills. This caused him to fail a test for two substances banned in sporting competition. Yet the pills did not give him the sort of artificial or unfair advantage that performance-enhancing drugs gave the likes of athletes Ben Johnson and Nadzeya Ostapchuk. The mixing of sleeping pills and energy drinks or beer does not fall into that category either.
The practice may, as Jane suggests, be a "stupid choice", the more so because he says now that he has no recollection of the incident. But sports bodies risk damage to their credibility if they impose all-encompassing bans at the first hint of foolishness. On its own, this carries the risk players will simply find a new, potentially more dangerous, way to replicate some form of high.
Education, not prohibition, is, indeed, the answer.