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Sport is a brutal career. Forget about what happens on the field, the requirements of the World Anti-Doping Code are the manifestation of brutality.
The rules must be that way but the operation of them and the imposition of their consequences can be vicious. Outcomes can alter lives.
An athlete who breaches the Byzantine anti-doping rules is cast out as a pariah. A months-long, or even years-long, prohibition from sport ensues. The harshness extends beyond that.
Even a provisional suspension, imposed between being charged and being determined as innocent, can drag out for months. Reputations can be shredded. Ask Australian middle-distance runner Peter Bol how he feels about the system, having been put through the wringer more than once in 2023.
For a professional athlete, a lengthy period of ineligibility extinguishes their immediate ability to support themselves. For many, it obliterates their whole raison d’etre. Employment terminated. Sponsors deserting en masse.
Even then, the anguish isn’t over. For athletes in that predicament, who I’ve represented, that’s what hurts most, what shatters their spirit, regardless of the false bravado in their denials.
Xerri returned to professional training with the Bulldogs this week.Credit: Steven Siewert
The whole system is specifically and intentionally designed to exclude, to cut adrift the guilty athlete. The problem is, however, that even the small cohort of athletes who purposely set out to definitely cheat are still human beings. And they are being punished by an arguably inhumane system.
No longer can the offending athlete be financially or otherwise supported by the organisations they have previously been tethered to and dependent on. The accredited and funded coaches, who once provided structure to the athlete’s life, are gone. Other forms of welfare and wellbeing protection are also not available. The system is not set up to support the sanctioned athlete. But should it be?
I raise all of this in the context of the expiration of the four-year doping ban enforced on ex-Cronulla player Bronson Xerri. I was delighted to read Michael Chammas’ article that Xerri has emerged relatively unscathed from his four-year ban. Many athletes wouldn’t make it through, such are the levels of intestinal fortitude required. It is to Xerri’s credit that he’s in the minority.
It’s not surprising Xerri’s time on the sidelines has been difficult after he tested positive in November 2019 to exogenous testosterone, androsterone, etiocholanolone and some other prohibited substance with a name better resembling a line of NASA’s Apollo 11 landing code.
Credit: Simon Letch
Injecting the super-testosterone tonic is primitive and certainly banned. The method is unsubtle, easily detectable and potentially catastrophic.
In 2020, the NRL’s anti-doping tribunal decided that Xerri engaged in the use of banned substances, where he was at least actually aware of the serious risk that the substances were illegal. The NRL’s tribunal also decided that Xerri’s actions were at least grossly negligent.
Now, let’s not mince words: that’s cheating and there must be a harsh penalty.
I’ve no doubt league players pay less-than-full attention during the anti-doping lectures they receive each season, but Xerri’s case seems as stark as they get.
Peter Bol was put through the wringer more than once in 2023.Credit: Getty
Fault isn’t an element that needs to be proved to qualify for a ban. And by his own admissions, Xerri gave nothing more than a cursory thought to what he was doing at the time he made the decisions that brought him undone. Either that, or he knew the rules and gave no regard to the consequences of breaking them.
At this juncture, the conclusion is to say that Xerri is a cheat who got what he deserved.
The act of “cheating” requires a “mens rea” – a mental element, an actual choice to behave with disregard for the rules. There’s a mental integer to the act of cheating, which requires more than just identifying a breach of a sport’s rules.
How do we not brand Xerri a cheat forever? The answer is we can’t, he cheated. Nonetheless, should we not be a little more sophisticated and balanced?
As with such matters, I don’t reckon we know the full story and maybe we never will. But should we trust in Bronson Xerri again? Actually, I reckon we all should; or at least, we must try.
The idiocy of Xerri self-prescribing a cocktail of snake oil and jungle juice beggars belief. If he knew there was a serious risk, that using prohibited substances was a definite no-no, should we now care what becomes of him and his comeback in the 2024 season? The short point is that yes, we should care. We must care.
Xerri was a teenager – and likely a naive and pretty-well sheltered one at that – at the time he made however many bad choices he made back in 2019. We should care deeply about that.
And we should be impressed that he’s fought his way back to securing another chance. How could it ever have been the reality that Bronson Xerri was so isolated and alone, or at least perceived that to be the case, that he carved his own path through the jungle? It’s concerning that he went rogue, while employed in a professional sporting environment.
When the doping control officers came knocking in 2019, Xerri was barely old enough to vote. Sure, he’d featured in a smattering of first-grade rugby league games. But he’d also had a busted shoulder, and a couple of less-than-ideal surgical outcomes to contend with. That’s a huge weight when you’re a teenager with limited transferable skills.
It’s easy to understand how people go against, or beyond, medical advice in many circumstances. But how exactly was a player who had just celebrated his last birthday before leaving his teenage years behind left isolated in such a stark manner? Is it not the case that acting in Xerri’s best interests and protecting his welfare mandates mummifying him in cotton wool in those circumstances?
I’m not sure I buy into Xerri’s contentions that he was brought undone by a single error, to plunge one needle of who-knows-what into his arm. But, just the same, I can’t escape from drawing the conclusion that, in a wider sense, Xerri himself has been cheated. Certainly, he deserves another crack.
There’s something altogether obtuse about building a naive teenager into a nascent superstar and then cutting the person – not just the athlete – down at the knees when he’s at his weakest. That’s certainly not the NRL’s fault; and it’s not the fault of Sport Integrity Australia either. It’s the fault of the entire World Anti-Doping Agency system.
Xerri deserves serious and genuine credit for wanting to return, let alone being in a position physically and mentally where he can. The system isn’t designed with the intention of breaking people but it can easily smash them to bits.
I’m glad the system didn’t break Xerri. He’s got an Everest to climb, no doubt many wish him to slip before he gets anywhere near the summit. I hope he goes on to enjoy a fine and satisfying career worthy of the penance he’s faithfully served.
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