The current drugs crisis rocking the NRL and the Gold Coast Titans has captivated the sporting public like nothing before. The salacious scandal of illicit drugs, elite football players and alleged connections to bikie gangs on the glitter strip of the Gold Coast makes the ‘blackest day in Australian sport’ seem a distant memory at this point in time.
From a legal perspective, the situation has created a set of circumstances that are proving to be very difficult and challenging for sports administrators and the authorities alike. A number of the highest profile players from the Gold Coast Titans have been charged with offences in relation to possession and supply of illicit substances. The players charged are scheduled to appear in court at different stages over the next few weeks.
Prior to this though, it is being reported that a number of those players have met with Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission investigators and have had face-to-face meetings. The CCC has extraordinary powers and is able to collect information from phone and financial records as well as conduct coercive hearings.
However, the Gold Coast Titans club at the centre of this unfolding scandal has acted already and has stood down the players from active duty. Reports during the week suggested the players were considering legal action against their employer for the stance taken to stand the players down indefinitely. Have the Titans acted appropriately as the employer in taking this action? Are not the players entitled to a presumption of innocence?
The action that the Titans have taken is contractual and is quite separate from the criminal process that is underway. The players agree under the NRL Playing Contract to be bound by and comply with the NRL Code of Conduct and Anti-Doping Rules. Even at this stage, the club has acted with the NRL to stand the players down in accordance with the contract.
If more evidence is produced in respect of behavioural misconduct and it is viewed to be a serious breach of the contract, the Titans could further sanction a player and even terminate employment if required. Importantly, this course of action would be distinctive and separate from the action other authorities are conducting.
In addition, the sleeping giant waiting patiently in the background is the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). If the players are convicted of the criminal offences that they have been charged with, it will be an easy case for WADA to make out that they have breached Article 2.7 of the World Anti-Doping Code (WADC) and the consequences are enormous – a minimum sanction of four years.
It is likely that the careers of several of the charged players would be over. Whilst any action from WADA (or ASADA) is not unconnected, it is important to note that it is still a distinct jurisdiction and any investigation or disciplinary process would be conducted separately from the current processes underway.
As a final observation, the NRL has one of the most comprehensive player education programs to help combat illicit drug use in professional sport. It is becoming more and more difficult for players to shirk their responsibilities to their employers (the clubs) and the game itself. If they do choose to do so, the penalties will hurt.
Tim Fuller (pictured) is an associate at McInnes Wilson Lawyers.