A young kid and his Dad are at the MCG. There’s thousands of screaming fans and a packed arena.
All eyes are on the lime green oval shining in the centre. Collingwood and Richmond are playing and it’s going to be a tense match.
The young man turns to his Dad and says: “I love Dane Swan, I want to be just like him.”
For the next two hours Swan is a superhero to this young man. Every time he touches the ball, the boy claps and cheers.
The entire car ride home, radio presenters gloat about Swan like he’s Hercules. Swan is a cult figure in Melbourne but for the boy he is also a role model.
Fast forward to Monday morning. Swan is on the front page of the newspaper, with the headline ‘Swan Wild Night’. The young man sees this. Everyone sees this. Swan is in trouble for taking drugs again.
Recreational drug use has become a big problem in football. It took a legendary player by the name of Ben Cousins for it to be recognized as an issue. But players and coaches have known for a long time that it is also prevalent at a suburban level.
When Cousins was suspended from AFL in 2007 for substance abuse problems, the media reported it as if he was an aberration. Many people still talk about the West Coasts famous 2006 Premiership as if it is tainted because a group of players became corrupted.
Since then it has become clear that a drug culture is much more pervasive. It can be found in football clubs at every level.
Former Sydney Swans player Alex Brown says the issue is “more one of society”, and that “AFL players shouldn’t have to wear that burden”.
“During the season all the boys behave. Footy is bigger than that for them. It is their job and their responsibility,” he says.
Brown was on the Swan’s list throughout the 2012 and 2013 seasons before being delisted.
“The off season is their time to do as they please. It’s unfair but the reality is that being an AFL player is a 24/7 job, the camera is always on you,” he says.
Modern technology means AFL player’s behaviors under the microscope, particularly through social media.
“We’re beginning to see an alarming trend. Footy clubs are turning into micro drug dens for players,” says Fox Footy analyst Ben Waterworth.
“Players used to assemble at pubs or even the footy club and have a few beers and spend the night together. Now different players are going off in their own direction and winding up in all sorts of places,” he says.
The use of recreational drugs got so extreme that the AFL was forced to play its hand in 2005, introducing a three-strike system. If a player was caught taking drugs on three occasions, he was suspended. The first two strikes warranted fines and counselling sessions.
The problem became worse, so much so that in 2015 the AFL created a new two-strike system. Under the new system, players are suspended after just two strikes and named and shamed after a third strike.
“The AFL is certainly doing everything in their powers to keep a lid on this issue. The feeling is that they’re fighting a losing battle,” says Waterworth.
Just as the drug issue has affected the AFL, grassroots clubs are feeling the rippling effect of it.
“I’ve been here for nearly 20 years and it’s very clear to me that there has been some type of shift in the culture of what the boys are doing,” says Ryan Fitzsimmons, chairman of the Templestowe Football Club.
Fitzsimmons agrees there is an issue at the AFL level, but isn’t concerned about what’s occurring behind closed doors at Templestowe.
“I don’t see it as too big of a deal. The big names in the AFL who are on TV, radio and all that might. But we’re just here to play footy,” says Fitzsimmons.
Problems with drug use by footy players reflect a wider societal acceptance of drug abuse, with the drug Ice causing significant problems in the community.
Organisations are reaching out for advice from the AAIC (Australian Anti Ice Campaign), which makes people aware of the dangers associated with Ice but also with legal substances such as alcohol.
Its role model program has been implemented in more than eight states in the US, decreasing Ice usage by 80 per cent.
The AAIC employs a 4-step strategy to guide those who need help – involvement, training, network and community. It’s an approach that some say could be used in sports clubs as well.