When Christian Democrat leader Fred Nile last week called for random drug testing for New South Wales MPs and candidates, most people dismissed at as just another piece of fundamentalist nonsense – although Greens leader Lee Rhiannon said she was perfectly willing to be tested.

But over at the National Rugby League, not only is drug testing in place but a new policy adopted on Thursday will also see players suspended after two positive results for illicit drugs. The AFL, which suspends players after three, is under pressure to tighten its rules as well.

Politics and football are exactly parallel: both are about private use of recreational drugs. So why do we adopt such a different attitude in the two cases?

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No doubt footballers are more likely to be in the typical drug-taking demographic, so it might be thought positive results are more likely – but it would be unsafe to rest too much on that until we have actually conducted the experiment. And while it may be true that the community treats footballers more as role models than it does politicians, surely our MPs would not want to admit that openly.

Most people would accept (perhaps reluctantly) that the work MPs do is more important than playing football, so if drugs are going to affect their performance then it’s arguable we should know about it. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that MPs often discharge their duties while under the influence of a legal drug – alcohol. Footballers who did the same would probably have a much shorter career expectancy.

Part of the explanation is that sports have a well-established and necessary practice of testing for performance-enhancing drugs, and this makes it easy to confuse the issue in the public mind. Hence the report on yesterday’s NRL decision talks about “the strongest anti-doping regime in the nation.” But no-one’s arguing about “doping”; this is recreational drug use, no different (except in its illegality) from what MPs do in the members’ bar.

The most obvious reason for the difference is that footballers, despite their high profile, are fundamentally powerless. Politicians, as we have learnt from travel rorts and the like, make their own rules. They have no interest in introducing tests for things that might embarrass them.

But football administrators are not proposing to test themselves: they are imposing tests on a group of much younger people with pretty limited options, and popular anti-drug hysteria allows them to get away with it.

No other profession would stand for this. Australians worship sport, but we can be remarkably cavalier about the human rights of its practitioners.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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