Joe van Niekerk says there are ‘many different reasons why players take recreational drugs’ and each case should be empathetically investigated individually.
In an interview with Sport24, the former Springbok loose foward has spoken out about alcohol and illegal substance consumption during his playing days.
‘In terms of the topic of doping in sport and recreational drug-use, growing up in South Africa there was always a feeling that if you stepped out of line you would be dealt with in a severe and punitive way. There are many different reasons why players take recreational drugs,’ he said.
‘We should look at each case individually and could help players that get caught in a more compassionate way. If you were to smoke a joint before a match would you be able to play rugby at the top of your game? The answer is no. It isn’t a performance-enhancing drug – it’s actually a plant and therein lies the contradiction.
‘I’m not condoning the use of alcohol, pharmaceuticals, recreational or performance-enhancing drugs. All I’m saying is that it’s part of our society and we should deal with this humanely. I believe we need to bring more empathy towards players that test positive for recreational drugs,’ he explained.
Van Niekerk then moved to explain why he turned to alcohol abuse from a young age up to and during his professional playing career and how it almost destroyed his life.
‘I definitely feel that there was an ethos of drinking within rugby when I played. From my own personal experience, we were young and inexperienced then. I lost my father at the age of 14 and had to deal with the loss by becoming the man of the family at a very young age. I don’t think I ever really dealt with his death until later on in life,’ Van Niekerk said.
‘Drinking was always part of the culture when I started my rugby career. I don’t judge someone because they drink alcohol but there are other modalities out there which aren’t currently legal, but could help immensely especially with physical pain. When you consume alcohol you delay your own body’s mechanism of healing. At the age of 27, I reached a point where my back was literally and figuratively against the wall.
‘I was injured, had no contract and my girlfriend at the time was going to leave me. I realised then that drinking and partying had gotten out of control. I really pulled myself towards myself and decided to quit because it was no longer serving me. I went through a three-year period at the Lions without any alcohol and thereafter at Toulon, which did wonders for my rugby and life.
‘Frankly, I don’t think it does anything good for your life and it used to make me numb in a lot of ways. When I consumed alcohol I wasn’t able to be really clear and was also unable to control my emotions. Being without alcohol has brought awareness, clarity and so much more joy to my life.’