While the Panthers are set to be cleared of having any knowledge that Naden snorted a line of coke the night before the match, the player may face sanctions for breaching bio-security rules.
The wider issue worth exploring is the one-month suspension Naden received under a timely modification to the World Anti-Doping Code concerning “substances of abuse”.
In the past, Naden would have received a two-year ban for ingesting cocaine while in competition — as Wendell Sailor did in 2006 while playing for the NSW Waratahs — because the stimulant was in his system on game day.
But a two-year review of the WADA code resulted last year in a dramatic softening of one of the most contentious rules in anti-doping, responsible for all sorts of wild defences including tennis player Richard Gasquet successfully arguing he tested positive after kissing a girl who had taken cocaine at a nightclub.
“This means that if an athlete can demonstrate that the use of any of these [illicit] substances was out-of-competition and unrelated to sport performance, the suspension imposed will now be three months and may be reduced to one month if the athlete completes a drug rehabilitation program,” WADA said in a statement.
The Panthers remain furious at media reports suggesting they knew Naden had taken cocaine when he took the field for the grand final.
The timeline of events the club and Naden have provided to the NRL is plausible. Naden claims he took the drug, along with a few beers, the night before the grand final because he figured he would be omitted from Ivan Cleary’s 17-man side.
Instead, he was named on the bench and played 32 minutes in the dramatic 26-20 loss.
When drug-testers picked out Naden along with other players in the dressing room later that night, and he submitted a urine sample, he panicked and advised a member of the coaching staff that he feared he would test positive to cocaine.
The following day, Naden also admitted having mental health issues, which the club has been aware of since he received horrific racial abuse during a match at Gosford earlier that year.
The Panthers management contacted the NRL to tell them about Naden’s cocaine confession, although they were unaware of the imminent change in the WADA code. Head of integrity Joe Collins, however, knew it was coming.
The NRL and Sports Integrity Australia was subsequently satisfied Naden took the cocaine out of competition and accepted he would enter a relevant rehabilitation program.
A one-month ban, as per the new WADA code, was handed down. That meant the 25-year-old could resume training on January 1 — something that has outraged cynical fans and divided opinion among coaches and officials.
Sailor has declined media requests to comment on the change in the WADA code and the Naden matter, but has regularly said in the past he believed the two-year suspension was too much.
But there is a fear among some club bosses, who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity, that the new edict sends the wrong message to players wanting to dabble in party drugs when they’re not playing. Some illicit substances, like cocaine, can stay in the system for as much as four days.
“The thought of two years out of the game was a huge deterrent,” said one club boss. “Now, some players might be prepared to sail closer to the wind.”
It is also unclear under the WADA code what happens if athletes continually test positive, arguing each time that they have issues with addiciton.
RLPA chief executive Clint Newton applauds the change.
“What is the WADA code for?” he said. “It’s to stop cheating. We support the change because there’s a significant difference between substances of abuse and substances used for enhancing performance.”
Newton and Abdo will sit down shortly to refine the NRL’s illicit drugs policy, which affords players three strikes: a warning the first time; a 12-match ban the second; and deregistration the third.
It appears to be working: while testing has gradually increased since the policy was first implemented, the number of positive tests is below one per cent.
Abdo said the game will look to further increase testing, as well as target testing. Newton wants further protection and welfare provided to those players who do test positive.
Like every sport, the NRL walks a fine line with penalties that deter drug use while also providing support for their greatest assets: the players.
“Our policy has serious consequences because, if you’re a multiple offender, you’re out of the game,” Abdo said. “But it’s also a matter of culture. That might sound too naïve or optimistic. I believe truly professional athletes need to be disciplined and make the right choices in a high-performance environment. But they deserve support, too. If you step out of line, we’ll support you. But if you continue to step out of line, there’s no place for you in our game.”
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.