Footy players or guinea pigs in human experiments?

Associate Professor Brian Stoffell

AFL players are being treated “worse than guinea pigs” by clubs who are conducting performance-enhancing experiments without ethics approval, Flinders University’s Head of Social Health Sciences says.

According to Associate Professor Brian Stoffell, major Australian sporting codes including the AFL and NFL should enforce a code of conduct stipulating that all sports science research conducted in any club under their auspices goes through a vigorous human ethics review.

Associate Professor Stoffell, Director of Flinders Medical Centre’s Health Ethics Unit and Chair of Bellberry Ltd, a national not-for-profit organisation providing scientific and ethical review of human research projects across Australia, said the AFL should “lay down the law” and ensure clubs conduct research that has been approved by Human Research Ethics Committees.

Traditionally set up in hospitals, universities and healthcare centres, Human Research Ethics Committees (HREC) aim to protect the welfare of research participants by following the Federal Government’s guidelines on ethical conduct in human research.

“Each AFL club has its own group of sports scientists, some are university-trained PhD researchers so when they do their research it goes through the university’s HREC which is the proper way to do it but there are a lot of other sports scientists in football who may not conform to this process,” Associate Professor Stoffell said.

“Scientists are conducting a range of experiments on players across the whole gamut of sports science to improve performance, including exercise and supplementation regimes, yet in many cases noone is approving these experiments,” he said.

“You can’t do studies on mice or guinea pigs without going through an animal ethics committee but we’ve got people being subjected to research that noone has approved.”

While Exercise and Sports Science Australia has a code of conduct for research on humans, Associate Professor Stoffell said the rules only applied to its members.

He said major sporting codes had a responsibility to give an “absolute guarantee” that all studies performed on their players followed ethical review procedures.

“The AFL doesn’t have a research ethics committee – it’s starting to crack down a bit but I haven’t seen anything to suggest that any experiment conducted in football clubs will go through an ethics review process.

“My recommendation is that the AFL insist that all research on players be submitted to a HREC and therefore follow the Federal Government’s national guidelines; this will ensure the clubs comply.”

“The HREC has a mandate to protect the welfare of people who are subject to experiments so the AFL shouldn’t turn a blind eye to it.”

Associate Professor Stoffell wrote an opinion for the AFL Players Association on Essendon Football Club’s controversial supplement regime and will present a paper, titled Treated Worse than Guinea Pigs: The AFL, Sports Science and HREC Review, at the Australasian Ethics Network Conference in Perth next week (November 27-29).

He is also writing a journal article with Flinders Social Health Sciences researcher Dr Deb Agnew which is expected to be published in 2014.

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