MIKE QUIRKE: Players in need of education, not condemnation, in drug debate

A proper educational process could have spared Brendan O’Sullivan the reputational damage he and his family have endured for nothing more than a poorly thought out mistake, writes Mike Quirke.

What a curious week it has been. A young man from Valentia island in south Kerry has been in the eye of a storm that has whipped the whole country into a frenzy on the drug debate. I’d like to be clear from the outset, before I get accused of trying to circle the wagons to protect a Kerry footballer, I believe Brendan O’Sullivan is 100% guilty. Guilty of making a really bad decision that has had serious ramifications.

For a modern day inter-county footballer to walk into a health shop and buy a fat burner, or any product for that matter, without checking with the team nutritionist or team doctor, with all the associated risks involved, is tantamount to walking around juggling a couple of unpinned grenades from hand to hand — eventually they’re going to blow up in your face.

I don’t know Brendan outside of what I’ve seen of him on the field — never met him. I couldn’t testify to know if he’s a good guy, a bad guy, or anything in between. I’ve heard people describe him as a genuine fella during the week and I’ve cringed. Just because he’s a nice lad, doesn’t mean he couldn’t take drugs to try to make himself better at Gaelic football. Of course it doesn’t. How nice he is is completely irrelevant. The content of his character has nothing to do with his innocence or guilt in this instance.

The only thing that does matter is the content of the reasoned report from the Irish anti-doping disciplinary appeals panel who found “no significant fault or negligence had been established” with the player. The appeals panel were unequivocal in their finding that this positive test resulted from a “contaminated supplement” — the list of ingredients on the container did not include the banned MHA. Fair enough, he made a mistake. Suspension served. Case closed. Not on your nelly Josephine.

The reaction since the final reasoned report has been published and the full facts of the case established have been something like we haven’t seen before. Respected journalists like Paul Kimmage and Ian O’Riordan among other sarcastic protagonists, took to social media sensationalising and, in my view, misrepresenting details like a bunch of excited 15-year-old schoolgirls taking a twisted kind of pleasure from hearing about a peer in their class getting cheated on by their boyfriend. Kimmage, in particular, came across as almost sneering, even posting a caustic message on Twitter with a picture of a container with “Doping” hand-written in black marker, accompanied by the words “Breaking: If it doesn’t say this, the worst you’re looking at is a six-month ban.”

Considering his acknowledged position as someone with extensive knowledge of doping, particularly in his own sport of cycling, his inferences suggested something that just wasn’t there. He was needlessly adding mud to water that had become clearer following the report. Deliberately poking fun at the situation Brendan O’Sullivan found himself was both inappropriate and unnecessary, in my opinion.

Players in need of education, not condemnation, in drug debate

Interestingly, a lot of the people coming out of the woodwork to fillet O’Sullivan and the GAA in general are people from a non-Gaelic games background who seem only too happy to see the players and the sport tainted in some way.

Think about it for a minute, some of these people have dedicated their lives to their own sports — take athletics for example, they’ve probably spent as many hours and as much effort as most footballers or hurlers in Ireland and have received a fraction of the adulation or support.

Others have swam, cycled, jumped, rowed, sailed, and the rest, and some have done so in very fast times, national records, PBs, qualified for Olympic Games and world championships, and represented their country on the highest possible stage of sport.

The problem, and why some seem to have a chip of their shoulder: The GAA gets a completely disproportionate amount of attention in this country in comparison to other sports. Some of the achievements of our top athletes who have never even won a medal have been huge triumphs when you consider the size and limited resources of our country, but the wider public don’t appreciate them like they do Tipperary winning an All-Ireland or Dublin going for three in a row. We marginalise other sports to the point where they feel the only people who care about them are the athletes themselves. And I’m specifically talking about the ones who don’t get to stand on the podiums with hardware around their neck — those who do return with gold, silver, or bronze have landed themselves the fattened calf, and have secured much greater earning capacity for themselves into the future.

And I have plenty of personal experience of being a part of a marginalised sport: I played national league basketball for the best part of 15 years in this country. We could have a huge hard-fought victory at the weekend and on the Monday morning there would be more column inches devoted to a local U12 county football league game than our epic battle.

Gaelic games is king in this country, and some of those on the periphery in other sports are only too happy to use any instance to chip away at the credibility of our indigenous games.

It’s been kind of like Trump’s America this past week… the Democrats and the Republicans. Brendan O’Sullivan has been a partisan issue. You’re either on one side or the other. Left or right. Again, the facts of the report are conclusive in that they have established that there was no deliberate intention to dope, but that’s not satisfying those on the other side.

If it was a runner they cry, would he be treated in the same way? The perception in their minds being that the GAA player has got some sort of preferential treatment here. Of course, that should not be the case, and I don’t believe it is.

Are there guys intentionally taking drugs within the GAA to enhance their performance? Probably a handful. Just because I have never seen or heard of it, doesn’t mean it’s not going on, and I’d love to see those guys caught and held accountable. But my take on drug testing in the GAA has always been the same.

Because of a complete absence of any concerted education process for the players, and especially newcomers onto county panels, we will continue to ‘catch’ guys who make an uneducated decision rather than those who are intentionally doping.

This is something the GPA really need to sink their teeth into. It should be a pressing player protection issue, far more relevant than some of their other ongoing projects.

Notwithstanding that, the ultimate burden of responsibility always falls on the individual player, as the representative body, they must make it a matter of priority to collaborate with the relevant stakeholders to develop a system of educating their members to make sure that ignorance of proper protocol can never again be the reason that a player gets himself into serious trouble like Brendan O’Sullivan has.

Bear in mind that, according to Dr Sharon Madigan, head of nutrition for the Irish Institute of Sport, close to 20% of regular supplements can be contaminated with banned substances because of production and manufacturing standards.

The growing issue with the supplements in this country isn’t going to go away overnight, but a proper educational process could have spared Brendan O’Sullivan the reputational damage he and his family have endured for nothing more than a poorly thought out mistake.

If nothing else, the GAA and GPA need to learn from this saga and take some affirmative action immediately to put a properly functioning educational procedure in place so as to lessen the chances of this ever happening to another footballer or hurler in the future.

They need to take the excuse of being uninformed off the table to protect their players.

If they don’t, we’ll find ourselves back here in another few months or years saying the same things about the same issues with some other poor character stuck in the middle of it.

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