You’ve probably heard of “The War On Drugs”, the US government’s equivalent of pushing a pea up a hill with one’s nose which aims to eradicate illegal narcotics forever by cutting them off at source whilst telling young people that drugs are “bad, m’kay?”. Football has its own equivalent, the savage sentencing of anyone caught with anything banned floating around in their bloodstream, and this summer’s pin-up boy for the anti-drugs in sport movement looks like being the Sheffield United goalkeeper Paddy Kenny, who tested positive for ephedrine after last year’s Championship play-off match against Preston North End. Kenny has been suspended by his club, who issued the following statement: “We confirm Paddy has been suspended. This is an ongoing, confidential matter”. His circumstances may provide him with a partial alibi – more on that further down – but ephedrine, the substance found in Kenny’s bloodstream, doesn’t have entirely innocent uses.
Drugs are an emotive subject, one of those that brings out the shrillest voices on both sides of the argument and renders any rational debate essentially meaningless, but in the case of Kenny the matter seems fairly clear cut. Ephedrine is used as a performance enhancing stimulant in sport, most notably in Amercian football, athletics and weightlifting, where it is used to increase concentration levels. However, it is also used regularly used in prescription medicines (it’s not illegal under prescription in the UK), most often in some types of cough mixture, and this seems to be where Kenny had his fateful dose. Whether the amount that was found in him was potentially performance enhancing is unknown, but United’s immediate suspension of one of their longest serving players the seriousness with which clubs have to treat any situation in which a player fails a drug test.
There are few that would argue that performance enhancing drugs should be permitted in sport. Most carry health risks that are beyond what most would deem acceptable, but which sportsmen, desperate to earn as much money as they can in a career that is often over in a blink of the eye, may be more prone to such temptation.recreational drugs such as cocaine and cannabis, however, remains a more divisive matter. It should be self-evident that playing sport on them could never be described as “performance enhancing”. Anybody that has ever inhaled any cannabis would be able to tell you that the urge to sit and watch cartoons for eight hours will far outweigh the desire to go to the park and kick a ball about. However, there is a point to these drugs being banned in sport, which is the (tenuous in other circumstances) “role model” argument. Having said that, though, it could be argued that a greater problem for those concerned could be stored up if players with a drug habit feel that they can’t go to the game’s authorities with a desire to clean up if they know that they’re going to be “made an example of” and banned for a couple of years.
In the case of ephedrine in the amounts found in cough medicine, however, the argument is slightly more nuanced. There is no question that ephedrine is performance enhancing or that it is dangerous in larger quantities. The good news for Kenny, however, is that, unlike other banned substances, ephedrine no longer carries an automatic ban and further tests can be carried out which will confirm whether the drug was taken medicinally or with the intention of being used performance enhancing. Which way that test goes will go most of the way towards determining whether he receives a warning or a two year ban which, at 31 years of age, would probably end his career. Some may hope for a little moderation in the case of Paddy Kenny, but special care has to be taken when dealing with such issues.
Ultimately, Kenny only has himself to blame for the predicament in which he finds himself. As a professional sportsman, it is par of his job to know which substances are banned and where he may accidentally come across them. If the average lay person knows that there is a link between some types of cough medicine and ephedrine, then he should know this as well. In law, ignorance is not a defence and a question mark now hangs over his head which may last for the rest of his playing career.