The AFL’s three-strike illicit drugs policy looked sound enough on paper, but all it has taken for the first player to be found guilty under the policy for the policy to come under severe scrutiny.

Putting aside what appears to be an appropriate and sensible penalty for Hawthorn’s Travis Tuck — a $5000 fine and a 12-match suspension from AFL football (eight VFL matches) — is Hawthorn’s deep frustration that it did not know of Tuck’s battle with clinical depression, which cuts to the heart of his drug usage, until 48 hours ago.

The argument put forward by Hawk chief executive Stuart Fox on Tuesday night, and which will doubtlessly be expanded on by club president Jeff Kennett in the next day or so, is that Tuck might never have been found unconscious in his car on Friday evening, had the club been in the loop earlier and been made aware of his previous positive tests for illicit drug use and his battle with depression.

Hawthorn would like to think that, given Kennett’s dual roles as club president and chairman of beyondblue, it would have been particularly well-placed to help Tuck.

This issue now appears set to drive a wedge between the clubs and the league. Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse chimed in earlier on Tuesday, saying clubs had a right to know before a third strike and we can confidently expect other clubs to support the views of Hawthorn and Malthouse.

The problem is that the players had signed off on the policy a few years back with the AFL, leaving the clubs unable to do much about it. The league and the AFLPA are as one on this, so good luck to the clubs in attempting to institute changes to a policy set in stone and which the league argued powerfully on Tuesday night is working well.

Back to the penalty itself. It could have been an 18-week ban, but the tribunal has showed some compassion and some leniency, with Tuck eligible to play state league football in round nine next year.

Tweaks to the player rules, fortuitously announced by the AFL in mid-August, allow clubs to leave a rookie list berth open to be filled after the NAB Cup. Pleasingly, the Hawks are sticking with Tuck, who will be allowed to train with the club through the summer and play in the NAB Cup and NAB Challenge Series. If they choose not to use that final rookie selection on Tuck, he can train with the club throughout 2011 and remain on what is called the inactive list, a sensible new initiative the AFL has ‘borrowed’ from the NFL.

We look at this story through the prism of Ben Cousins, whose documentary transfixed the football community last week. We learned there that relapses are par for the course for recovering drug addicts and from what we heard about Tuck, he has been seeking treatment for his addiction and his depression for more than a year.

The irony of this story breaking less than a week after Cousins told his story is noted, as is his one-year suspension for bringing the game into disrepute despite not once returning a positive drug test. Then again, Tuck wasn’t hauled into the back of a police car in front of TV cameras during lunch hour in a busy Northbridge street.

*Back Page Lead is a sports opinion website that provides sports content to Crikey.