High on life: are drugs in football about performance or lifestyle?

Football has been unlike many other high profile sports when it comes to drug taking. In football, the typical failed test finds evidence of drug taking in the recreational not performance enhancing sense (oh, Diego). Where other sports have been blighted with steroid use or blood doping, football has remained, for the most part, just the occasional user of the rich man’s party drug – cocaine. But a recent Europe-wide investigation revealed by the Sunday Times found 68 abnormal tests in European competitions indicating the possible use of anabolic steroids. The conclusion drawn was that football – like pro cycling and US baseball before it – not only had a drug problem, but was also in denial about it.

To date, just one Premier League player has been banned for the use of performance enhancing drugs, Abel Xavier while he was at Middlesborough. Traditionally, British football’s drug takers have been cast as misguided party people.

The most recent example is that of Jose Baxter who, having served two months of a five month ban after testing positive for cocaine, is now set to return for Sheffield United. Baxter was suitably contrite about his time away, expressing his remorse after making a mistake, explaining how he was just pleased to be back playing football.

But Baxter’s career was never called into question, nor is he likely to receive much vitriol from the fans. He was already widely considered an unfocused talent; once a future superstar, now a star that has so far burned with a slightly underwhelming light. His drugs ban was more symptomatic of this wayward nature than of any actions that bring the game into disrepute.

Contrast this to the worlds of athletics, pro cycling or major league baseball, and you see the divide. In those sports, a fierce desire to win gives way to seeking an unfair advantage under a cloak of conspiracy. Anabolic steroids to let you train harder, EPO to let you train and compete longer, human growth hormone to let you hit harder.

Six foot figures of pure twitch muscle carry themselves one hundred metres faster than seems possible. Wiry long distance athletes run further than seems possible. Journeymen first basemen suddenly bulk up and become home run specialists.

Football, perhaps, has been saved from the accusations and scandal of performance enhancing drugs because so little of the game is about pure physicality and so much is about technique. You might be able to outmuscle an opponent or run faster for longer with the help of drugs, but they are unlikely to do much for your first touch or your close control, or for your ability to see a pass.

After all, a slightly tubby bloke who never breaks into a run can still be the best player on the pitch – just ask Matt Le Tissier.

But in avoiding the scandal of performance enhancing drugs – the prospect of which you suspect the governing bodies will now be forced to pay closer attention to – football remains guilty of under-addressing a similarly difficult issue, that of the culture of the sport.

Football has long been a game played by brash young men who enjoy a good time. From George Best’s antics, through the Spice Boys of the nineties and on to Instagrammed photos of Jack Wilshere smoking in a jacuzzi, it’s part of the identity of the sport.

This projection of footballers as a bunch of good time Charlies can mask more deep-seated problems. Football has had its troubles with addiction – Best’s well-publicised battles with alcohol, Paul Gascoigne’s, the experiences of Tony Adams in the hard-drinking Arsenal side of the 1990s which led to him founding the Sporting Chance clinic.

More recently, Hull manager Steve Bruce admitted he felt he had let down midfielder Jake Livermore, after the 25 year old failed a drug test earlier this year. Livermore had been dealing with the loss of his newborn son last year, and Bruce felt he had missed the signs of a man going through a dark time. Livermore avoided a ban for his positive drug test based on those extenuating circumstances. But, the affair is just the latest in a long series of examples of football’s failings in mental health.

Addiction and dependency is an illness, and one which is the NHS links to mental health. Individuals self-medicate, and they self-regulate their moods – attempting to recreate the high of match day, or lift themselves from a slump in their personal life to prevent it effecting their ability to do their jobs.

Football can’t tackle all of these problems at once, but it should be open and transparent. Sunlight really is the best disinfectant. Is there a problem with performance-enhancing drugs? Let’s find out. Is there a problem with addiction and supporting those who exit the game suddenly? Let’s investigate.

Only by facing up to these problems can you begin to deal with them.

Featured image: all rights reserved by Wagner Fontoura.

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