- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Take a young soccer player, give him head-spinning success, wads of cash and an excess of spare time when he is not playing or training. Into that volatile mix, now add a nightclub, way too much champagne and a few vampirish hangers-on who pretend they are the rising star’s new best friends. One of them produces a wrap of cocaine or a stick of weed and the fatal words: “Try this.”

Invariably, some do.

So, you ask, who are these foolish players and do they play for my team?

To which the answer is: None of your business.

For years, England’s Football Association has subjected players to out-of-competition tests for so-called “social drugs” _ cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana and suchlike. Unsurprisingly, it catches quite a few, too: 19 for cocaine, 22 for marijuana and 2 for ecstasy since 2003 _ which only goes to show that soccer isn’t immune from the ills of the wider society in which all of us live.

The FA won’t say who these players are and this week took some heat in a documentary on English TV’s Channel 4 for keeping those names secret. But there are several reasons why its silence makes sense.

For starters, the international anti-doping rules that govern most sports only take issue with these particular drugs when athletes test positive for them during competition. The reason for banning them in a sports event is that stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines can boost performance and because it is simply stupid, dangerous and against the whole notion of healthy endeavor to sprint, jump, drive, dive, kick, shoot or whatever if you’re high.

Soccer is bound by these regulations, too, and the FA says it has absolutely no compunction about naming players who violate them by testing positive in-competition for social drugs.

That was the case with Shaun Newton. Then with West Ham, he tested positive for cocaine after an FA Cup semifinal against Middlesbrough in 2006 and was suspended for seven months. So, in Newton’s case and others like it, the use of a social drug by an athlete in-competition is and should be our business _ because the anti-doping regulations that govern sport make it so and because we have a right to know if an event was skewed by a competitor with an unnatural advantage.

But, if these drugs are taken out of competition, the same rules do not apply. An athlete who snorts cocaine on vacation will most likely be breaking the law of the land but, as far as sport is concerned, it’s not an anti-doping violation. For that reason, the United States Anti-Doping Agency and its British counterpart do not test for these drugs out of competition. Doing so would waste resources and there’d be no point.

But, even though it is not obligated to, the FA does. In doing so, it is going the extra mile to protect players and the image of the game. Furthermore, in the dozens of out-of-competition cases involving cocaine and marijuana in English soccer in the past eight years, many of the players were suspended for several months _ which, again, goes way beyond what the World Anti-Doping Agency’s code requires.

Since these are not violations of that WADA code, the FA isn’t obliged to name the players and chooses not to. The FA says players are offered drug counseling and assessed by treatment specialists. It argues that naming the players could hinder their rehabilitation and, if they are addicted, efforts to medically treat them.

“We go far beyond what we are required to do,” Jenni Kennedy, the FA’s head of off-field regulation, said in a telephone interview.

“We recognize that young men with high income and a job that gives them a lot of spare time are obviously at risk of social drugs in our society,” she added. “The majority of players who test positive for social drugs out of competition are very young players, early on in their career, who have succumbed to peer pressure, usually after having had a few drinks and it’s a one-off mistake.”

If that is the case, then it’s hard to see what arguments could convincingly be made in these situations for naming and shaming them. Yes, these drugs are illegal, but being young, rich and stupid are not, so does the public really have the right to know? Naming them might sell more tabloids that relish and sometimes feed such scandals. But that, given their sometimes intolerable methods, is as good a reason as any for protecting the players in these cases. There’s also the possibility that identifying vulnerable players could steer drug dealers in their direction.

Michele Verroken, the former director of anti-doping at UK Sport, said that in the 1990s, dealers specifically targeted soccer players at Charlton Athletic, grooming the “youngsters to use drugs because they had the money to buy.”

“There was a whole group that had attached itself to the footballers, the youngsters, the apprentices,” she said in a phone interview. “We did a big program around Charlton Football Club trying to get the players to really amend their lifestyles, in order to ensure that they didn’t fall foul of people who seemed to be their best friends and really weren’t.”

There is at least one case where, perhaps, the FA should have named a player. He refused a drug test in the 2007-08 season. That is a violation of the WADA anti-doping code, and he was suspended for two years. But Kennedy says there was a “serious and significant risk” that the player might hurt himself if he was identified publicly and “a lot of medical evidence to support that and psychiatric evidence.” So, in that case, he wasn’t named.

But, otherwise, “the FA would have no problem at all naming any player that breaks that WADA code,” she said.

As for the others, the social drug users caught out of competition and who don’t have to be named: “They are punished for that mistake and are subjected to two years of target testing so that we are aware should they ever make that mistake again,” she said.

“It’s to allow them to get the necessary help that they need and usually it’s just advice and counseling on how to handle those risk situations that they sometimes find themselves in. And then they can return to the sport having served a sanction.”

Unnamed and better for it.

___

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester

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