What is this weird fascination with designer drugs by NRL players? In the same week as one of the greats, Benji Marshall, retired his dancing feet and exemplary career, one of the saddest sentences in sport appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
It detailed the Warriors' complaint that teenage prodigy Reece Walsh copped a two-game suspension for his cocaine misadventure – while a Melbourne Storm trio suffered only one game off after they were unable to remember whether the white powder in their room was cocaine and whether they took it or not.
If you had to go back and read that sentence a second time, I'm not surprised. It's a piece of nonsense not out of place in Alice In Wonderland and the Mad Hatter's Tea Party – and an indictment of the NRL.
Since when has rugby league descended to a place where clubs complain about the comparative severity (or lack of it) of punishments for players dabbling in designer drugs?
Walsh was arrested in possession of cocaine, apologising in an awkward TV interview sitting next to Warriors CEO Cameron George – who at least had the decency to look like he was sitting on a particularly prickly cactus. It was George who reportedly rang the NRL Integrity Unit to point out that Walsh received a heavier suspension (and a $5000 fine) than the Storm trio.
The Storm's Cameron Munster, Brandon Smith and Chris Lewis were all punished – if that is the word – for partying in a hotel room with what appeared to be a white substance on a table. They were all suspended for one game and fined $30,000, $15,000 and $4000, the NRL taking into account the varying salaries of each player.
Munster was fined $100,000 (though it was suspended), had a 12-month alcohol ban placed on him and has to go into rehab for four weeks... for alcohol abuse. That's because the Storm trio told the Integrity Unit they were too drunk to remember if they took drugs and whether the white substance in the video capturing the partying was cocaine.
Wow, they must have drunk an awful lot. Not only did they black out what happened in their party, their memories were collectively so affected by booze, it even obliterated any memory of who brought the white stuff and whether it was cocaine or maybe talcum powder. Huh.
Storm CEO Justin Rodski wouldn't comment on whether he thought the players had taken cocaine when they were unsure themselves – but said the penalties were anything but soft.
The overwhelming impression gained from this whole business, and others like it, is that the NRL has less interest in stamping out drug usage in the playing ranks than getting it out of the media. The fines are easily handled by players on fat salaries. The big fine – $100,000 – won't even be applied unless Munster stuffs up further.
And why are the fines graded according to their varying salaries? In what universe is punishment for offending dictated by income?
Drugs seem to be playing a bigger part in transgressions – and we are not just talking about former Bronco Jamil Hopoate appearing in court recently in connection with the alleged importing of over 500kg of cocaine and former Warrior Manu Vatuvei's date in December for sentencing on a conviction for importing methamphetamine.
It's more about more commonplace usage – like the four players mentioned above and Bulldogs forward Ofahiki Ogden, charged with drug possession the night before this year's NRL grand final.
Back in 2019, the NZ Herald published a list of 66 off-field scandals in the NRL over the previous four years – about one and a half incidents per month, mathematically. Of the 66, 21 were allegations of assault and 17 cases of drugs-related offences. In 11 of the assault allegations, the alleged victims were women.
Even if the players were subsequently found not guilty of anything, the controversy was belittling. In 2016, leaked video footage showed Mitchell Pearce mimicking having sex with a dog at a party on Australia Day – setting the unenviable record of being not just the most googled NRL player that year but the most googled Australian.
So while things might have moved on from jolly japes like defecating in hotel corridors and in a teammate's shoe, the parade of drug offences is growing.
Former league great Peter Sterling predicted this back in 2017, after a crop of drug offences by players, saying punishments were not harsh enough and players were "hit with a feather".
Sterling said: "I think the punishment should be commensurate with the damage done. Our old players are better educated than they have ever been, so it just doesn't wash with me, that 'I made a mistake [excuse]'.
"I'm over it, I think 12 games first offence and then second offence, two years. Performance-enhancing, four years. I just think that you've got to draw a line in the sand, the game has got to make a stand."
Absolutely. It's hard to watch the NRL when you know so many players have transgressed in such anti-social and dopey ways. It erodes their credibility and our interest.
Young men making mistakes? Or just plain dumb? Or allowed to get away with it by an organisation whose line in the sand was washed away by a tide of inaction? Maybe all three.