AFL 2019: What lies ahead for Willie Rioli

Adrian Meredith gives his thoughts on the Willie Rioli story.

In the news in the past few weeks is to story of West Coast Eagles player Willie Rioli first being found to have given a false drugs sample and then it was revealed that he tested positive for… marijuana.

The first thing to consider is the awful timing of this. This should be a kind of mid-season thing, or perhaps an off-season thing, not while we are heading into the Grand Final. This has overshadowed Nat Fyfe getting his second Brownlow Medal in a tight race ahead of Patrick Cripps, Patrick Dangerfield and Tim Kelly. It has also overshadowed the Grand Final itself, which sees the best team of last year and 2017 premier Richmond up against my personal pick to win this year’s premiership in my pre-season review in GWS. This should be a very good Grand Final but now, instead, we are distracted by the Willie Rioli saga.

So first off the punishment is, in theory, up to 4 years, by WADA codes, but is he really likely to get that much? A comparable case is Australian cricketer Shane Warne’s 2003 ban for taking a masking agent, which landed him a year out of the game and missing the entire 2003 World Cup (as it occurred just before the Wrold Cup began). Warne claimed that he hadn’t taken any drugs and that he was simply taking something to try to help to lose a bit of weight, a claim that was never tested. He was banned for a year for potentially not doing anything at all.

Arguably swapping a test sample is worse than taking a masking agent, since the act of swapping a test sample is significantly more deliberate than simply taking a masking agent that could be accidental. If we were to accept Warne’s claim, then a year seems excessive for simply trying to lose a bit of weight.

Of note, however, Willie Rioli has yet to make a statement. We now know that he has tested positive for the recreational drug marijuana, which, of note, is not performance-enhancing. If anything, it’d make him less capable of being a good football player.

When we confuse recreational drug use with performance-enhancing drug use, we get into all sorts of problems. Ben Cousins, the former West Coast Eagles and Richmond player, was found to have taken cocaine and other recreational drugs, exposing what many to believe was a drug culture in West Coast Eagles and in other clubs, but it should be noted that those are not performance-enhancing drugs, and he has rightly kept his 2005 Brownlow medal.

A comparison should also be made to Essendon, who, as a club, injected performance-enhancing drugs throughout the 2012 season. They claimed that they were legal at the time, and individual players were probably not fully aware of what was going on, but Jobe Watson, who won the 2012 Brownlow medal, was rightly stripped of his title. He didn’t deliberately take performance-enhancing drugs, but he certainly benefited from them, as did the entire team. And, while most individual players claimed ignorance, a handful of them came forward to say that they didn’t want to do it, changing clubs and even prematurely retiring in preference to having drugs injected into their system, drugs which they knew very little about.

The Willie Rioli case, however, is about more than just the drugs he took: it is also about honesty. If he had simply tested positive to marijuana and owned up that he had been smoking illegally the night before, his punishment may have been a month, or perhaps two or three. Since, in Australia, smoking marijuana is such a minor offence that it is virtually decriminalised, arguably even that is a harsh penalty, but it would have been accepted as fair enough, as they are role models. It’d be akin to other minor offences like getting drunk and urinating on a police station or all of the various other little things that players do from time to time.

The issue is the falsified sample, and that is where he may get a large penalty.

The base penalty should probably be 12 months, the same penalty that Shane Warne got for taking a masking agent back in 2003. It isn’t performance-enhancing so he shouldn’t lose any awards he may have earned. The question is whether it should be a higher or lower penalty than the baseline, and that really depends on the circumstances.

If, as some reports are suggesting, he simply panicked and replaced the urine sample with some orange juice (reports are saying that it wasn’t even urine) then we can perhaps put it down to stupidity and give him, perhaps, as low as a two or three month suspension. Given that we are now in the off-season, that could equate perhaps to missing the entire pre-season plus, perhaps, the first 6 rounds of the 2020 season.

That’d be a harsh penalty that would send a significant message. A two month suspension, spent entirely over the off-season, wouldn’t send any message at all.

On the other hand, if this was a part of a systematic manipulation of the system aimed at catching drug cheats, and he is one of a number of people using advanced methods to try to cheat the system, and it is performance-enhancing and not just marijuana, then I would think that something close to the maximum of 4 years would be appropriate.

We don’t know the circumstances yet so we can’t know for sure.

We do know that he is guilty, and we know that he is going to get some penalty, but we don’t know how guilty he is precisely and what kind of penalty he will get.

Let us hope at least that this doesn’t turn into the absurd situation we had with Essendon, involving lawyers upon lawyers. Let us hope that whatever punishment WADA hands down, AFL goes with it, and so does West Coast Eagles and Willie Rioli. And let us hope that it is fair.

My tip is 12 months, meaning the entire 2020 season, even if West Coast Eagles makes the Grand Final. I think that would be fair.

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