This weekend, the AFL is deciding whether to bend the rules one more time to get Ben Cousins back on the field. The path was cleared by the AFL in November, after setting onerous drug-testing conditions — far in excess of that imposed on any other player. His controversial hair testing regime, for example, was fiercely opposed by the AFL players’ union. Cousins circumvented that measure by sporting a shaved head and smooth body, a look that’s sure to catch on with other players.

The tacit admission by the AFL is that its lax drug-testing standards could be bolstered with more tests and less chances. Last year, Crikey showed how, under certain statistical assumptions, an AFL player could take cocaine weekly with only a modest 26% chance of career termination. (This drops to 1% for monthly use.) At three tests a week with no strikes, Cousins faces a 100% chance of career (re-)termination if he relapses.

The wider concern is that letting Cousins back into the game will signal a major backdown by the AFL on its willingness to discipline players when clubs refuse. This problem is dubbed the Malthouse Doctrine, after Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse. After letting Chris Tarrant and Ben Johnson take to the field the weekend after a particularly infamous incident, Malthouse explained:

The fact that Chris and Ben are crucial to the on-field success of Collingwood has influenced my decision. Had they been youngsters on the fringe of selection, I might have thought a playing ban was in order.

I suspect I’ll be criticised for admitting this — what’s new? — but you are kidding yourself if you think it would happen differently anywhere else. Different players get treated differently.

Perhaps if we were 15th, like last year, I would be thinking differently.

This relentless focus of clubs on winning this weekend at the expense of longer-term league-wide issues was addressed by the AFL in November last year when they dropped Cousins from the competition.

The effect on general lawlessness and scandal has been remarkable, as this graph shows.

The AFL should be commended for getting to the root of a strategic threat to the game. Any backsliding now jeopardises these gains.