Testing times

Tim Springett explains why the FA's widely publicised anti-booze campaign is doomed to fail.

A mere day after Tony Adams owns up to an alcohol problem comes the announcement by the FA that they are to intensify their programme of random breath-tests of players. Such testing, so it seems, has already been taking place for three years. Apparently there have been no positive tests so far: for the FA’s sake, this is just as well.

Superficially random breath tests may look like a great idea; a logical extension of the FA’s drug screening policy which will result in the eradication of alcohol problems among footballers. Unfortunately, the FA has failed to grasp any of the main issues surrounding breath-testing and their chosen measure is accordingly counter-productive.

Firstly, the idea is that if a player gives a positive breath test, his club will be told. But this is medical information; if it is passed on to anyone other than a medical practitioner without the player’s express consent this represents a breach of medical confidentiality. Footballers have rights, too.

Secondly, what does random testing achieve? A positive breath-test is nothing more than evidence that a player has recently consumed alcohol. Legend has it that Bobby Charlton used to take a swig of whisky before a match; this hardly amounts to alcoholism. Meanwhile many players with alcohol problems are likely to attempt to hide them until it gets too late. But if breath-tests are taking place after training sessions and matches it is the Bobby Charltons rather than the problem players who get caught. Is this really what the FA wants?

Thirdly, policies to tackle misuse of alcohol and abuse of drugs should always be kept separate. Abuse of illegal substances is an offence and of course the FA has a duty to ensure that players do not gain an unfair advantage by using performance enhancers. Alcohol, on the other hand, is not illegal and those with alcohol problems have been long recognised as suffering a health disorder. An approach which views problem drinkers as naughty boys rather than people with an illness can only do more harm than good.

Fourthly, breathalyser tests are of no legal standing. The margin of error is too wide and no written record is kept. If a motorist fails a roadside test, a definitive result is produced from a blood or urine sample. Yet there is no sign that the FA plans to conduct this follow-up testing – essential if the results are to have any credibility.

Random breathalysers, therefore, are a way of breaching medical ethics to identify players who may well not have alcohol problems at all, in the expectation that clubs will take action against such players even when they have committed no offence. Brilliant.

Of course it is in everybody’s interests that misuse of alcohol should be eradicated. However, it is surely the responsibility of clubs to ensure that their players are fit to play and not suffering from any health disorder which may affect their fitness and ability to do their job. Moreover, there are useful steps the FA could take to assist clubs, such as spending some of their £150,000 substance misuse budget on educational programmes for use by clubs and information on counselling and treatment for players for need it. This type of programme, which operates successfully in many other industries, could help players who, whilst not alcoholics, drink to levels which could damage their health, encouraging them to do something about it themselves before a serious problem occurs. You can be certain that for every player who requires urgent remedial action, there will be many who may reach this stage if their drinking is not nipped in the bud.

Above all, it is important to maintain confidentiality. Whilst Tony Adams is most of the way to overcoming his alcoholism simply because he has admitted to it, the fact that it has been front page news will not be the best encouragement to others. The FA should surely accept some responsibility for the manner in which Tony Adams’ problem came to light. The fact that their programme has been running for three years and the England captain, who even has a drink-drive conviction, escaped detection, ought to set a few alarm bells ringing at Lancaster Gate.

If testing is to form part of a co-ordinated policy that will win support at all levels the the game, it has to be properly organised and failsafe. The FA’s ham-fisted approach will miss its target and drive the problem underground until it is too late for many players – leading only to a further succession of high-profile tabloid revelations.

From WSC 117 November 1996. What was happening this month