Saturday 21 January 2017

Richard Sadlier: Maybe all players who test positive for cocaine should be offered help rather than be suspended

Published 13/09/2015 | 12:38

Hull's Jake Livermore was suspended after failing a drug test
Hull's Jake Livermore was suspended after failing a drug test

Have you heard the one about the footballer who played superbly because of all the cocaine in his system? Me neither.

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Hull City midfielder Jake Livermore will not be punished for testing positive for cocaine. Livermore failed a drugs test after Hull’s win at Crystal Palace on April 25 and the English FA announced on Thursday he will face no punishment. In its written reasons, an independent regulatory commission ruled the offence “only occurred as a result of the severe impairment of Mr Livermore’s cognitive functions and judgment caused by the circumstances for which he was in no way at fault”. He is now free to resume his playing career having been suspended since the positive result returned in May.

According to Livermore’s testimony, which was supported by his manager Steve Bruce, team-mate Tom Huddlestone, his father and the club doctor, he was suffering from severe depression following the death of his son a year earlier. The inquest into the tragedy had concluded only days before he took the cocaine that showed up in the test. 

Is that the kind of compassion you’d expect in a situation like this or is it setting a precedent others will look to exploit?

Ignore for a moment whether this is an offence that warrants a suspension. Livermore’s new-born son died during complications at birth at a private hospital. It’s impossible to imagine how traumatic that must have been for him, his partner and their families. The commission heard detailed accounts of how this impacted Livermore’s state of mind over time and how it affected his behaviour, and was satisfied that the evidence presented was “substantial and compelling”.

The most effective coping strategies would be tested by a tragedy like this. As the ruling suggests, he wasn’t in total control of his cognitive functioning. Grief is a complex area and affects people in different ways, but the lenient approach here is also the humane one. He has been put through enough and imposing a ban now will only exacerbate his torment. Who knows, maybe a return to football will help him along in his recovery.

The alternative view is more straight-forward and a lot less compassionate. Although most of the detail relating to his mental health at the time was deemed too sensitive for the commission to publish, meaning the full extent of his anguish is not publicly known, there is an argument the FA should have ignored Livermore’s circumstances and imposed the normal ban. Cocaine is either banned or it isn’t. You don’t get to take it with impunity when you’re going through difficulties, yet that’s essentially what this ruling has allowed for. It seems a heartless stance, particularly in this case, but you either allow cocaine or you don’t.

The FA says there are mitigating factors here and that this isn’t a precedent-setting case. They may be right, and you would hope nobody in future would dare to compare their own suffering to that of Livermore’s, but it’s hard to imagine that it will never happen. In any case, how do you measure personal suffering and where do you draw the line on what’s intolerable? The rules are there for all footballers to abide by, but how could you possibly rule in a consistent way on the emotional impact of different circumstances on different people? And you hope the commission don’t think people affected by depression have no option but to take cocaine.

There is a broader point to be made here too. Cocaine is not performance-enhancing and the FA should not classify it as such. It is used for recreational purposes only. It is damaging to health, yes, but if monitoring the health of players was a legitimate aim of the FA, smoking would be outlawed in the morning.

A ban on cocaine in football seems like window-dressing. It shouldn’t be promoted as a healthy lifestyle choice but the statutory ban of up to two years is out of sync with the severity of the offence. It doesn’t help you on the field of play and isn’t something which puts your opponent at an unfair disadvantage. It should be beyond the remit of the FA to suspend players if they choose to take it, but there is no way the rule will be changed because of how it’ll be perceived.

It is right that Jake Livermore wasn’t  banned from football considering the horrendous personal tragedy he endured.

Maybe all players who test positive for cocaine should be offered help rather than be suspended for taking a drug which only has a detrimental impact on their performance.

Sunday Indo Sport

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