I lied. I do care. People like James Hird should take the rap …

What a Racquet tennis racquet and ballYesterday I tweeted here that I’d had enough of the Essendon Football Club scandal (if you don’t know what that is and you live in Australia you should come out from under that rock; if you don’t live in Australia, just google any Australian newspaper and you can read all about it).

I meant what I tweeted at the time, in a, “How. Long. Does. This. Have. To. Go. On. For???” kind of way, but the thought kept haunting me throughout the day. Do I really not care? Should I care? How important is the issue in the great scheme of things but also how important should it be in the great scheme of things in my own life and the lives of my children?

I’ve actually given myself a stern talking to because when you have a child who aspires to be an elite athlete it is surely your duty as a parent to put some thought into the moral problem of performance enhancing substances? If only to put some kind of awareness of the issue in front of your child.

I suppose the big question for me is whether it is or will be physically possible for any top athlete to perform at the highest level without performance enhancing ‘help’ and if that’s the case, what does that mean for my son or any of his friends down the track? Those of my generation will remember the great 100m scandal in the ‘80s when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic Gold medal. Our children all know of the black shadow hanging over the world of elite cycling and the Lance Armstrong revelation where a whole generation of sport lovers felt betrayed by one of the most famous sporting heroes in history.

How much of this though, is the fault of the athlete or the fault of the people around him or her? Young athletes are by nature, competitive. They wouldn’t be doing what they do if they weren’t. They want to win and to be the best. But how much of that competitiveness is used as leverage for the subsequent greed of those who coach and mentor them to the point where they knowingly or unknowingly take banned substances to make them good, better and best?

It must be a relief to the actual players at Essendon Football Club that the AFL will not be charging individuals with wrong doing, although the disappointment of being kicked out of finals must hurt.  In the past, in other sports, it’s the player or athlete who has been stripped of his accolades and robbed of his career; I never read about Ben Johnson’s coach being charged with wrong doing for example or Lance Armstrong’s coach for that matter. In this I feel the AFL is doing the right thing because at the end of the day, the mentors of the players; their managers and their coaches have to be held responsible as they have the most influence over the athletes and clearly do not have their best interests at heart.  A 12 months ban doesn’t seem that harsh to me.

At what point does the player take responsibility for his own actions? Young people are impressionable at the best of times. As a parent I can only trust that my judge of character in the people I have chosen to help my son on his path has been correct so far. As a 13 year old, my son looks up to his mentors and drinks in every word they say. Luckily, his coach has to be one of the most grounded people we know and we have a great level communication with him. I trust completely that what he says and advises will only be in my boy’s best interests. His other mentors also have a significant influence on him and they are enthusiastically supportive of all the young athletes in their care. It is a huge responsibility for them as their young coachees look to them for everything. Even last weekend a squad session sparked a big dinner table discussion at home about introducing an even healthier diet to the one I thought was already pretty good. Apparently we need more protein, fewer processed carbohydrates, more organic, more fruit and veg, less ‘white’ food, more grainy foods. All this from listening to his coaches talk about increased performance based on work done off court with a good exercise regime and a more ‘whole and clean’ diet. A fantastic discussion which was a spring board to my boy taking a bit of control over his diet and cleaning it up a little to see if that will help his results even more. There is nothing wrong with that at all, I’m thinking, it’s great he’s listening to good advice.

So that begs the question, will there be a time down the track, when my boy will have a trusted mentor tell him that he needs to just ‘add this’ to his diet or ‘inject that’ once a day, to enhance his performance and that will take him from being good to being great to being ‘the best’?  And then what will he do?

I’ve asked him the question directly, “What would you do if you found out that taking a banned substance was the only thing you needed to do to take you to the very top?” and at this point, being 13 years old and still fabulously geared to the childhood simplicity of what is right and what is wrong he says that of course he will never ever EVER take any drugs ever, not even to become the world number 1, because drugs are wrong and why would you do that?

I am of course pleased that he thinks this way right now but how do I know that when he is older, when I have less influence, he won’t be encouraged by some unknown future mentor who will be out for his own gain, thinking the risk of being caught will be worth the gain if not?  How can I be sure he will make the right decisions? 

So, obviously I do care about what’s going on with the Essendon Football Club scandal. I care quite deeply actually. I care that there are people out there in sport who only want to ride on the backs of the talented young people in their care for their own advancement. Results pay; the better your athlete or team is, surely the fatter your own pocket will eventually be. So to some, the gamble is worth it I guess. Until someone blows the lid off a whole club culture of wrong doing that is. Then it’s scrambling finger pointing and “I didn’t know it was banned”, “How very dare you bring my name into disrepute” and “I’ll take you to court for besmirching my good reputation”. Is the gamble worth it? I suppose it depends on how much a young sports career is worth to some.

As far as I am aware, tennis is a ‘clean’ sport, as yet unsullied by the shadow of doping.  All I can wish for is that, should he achieve his goal to get to men’s elite level, my boy has the wherewithal to make the right decisions while having the support of the right people who have his best interests at heart.