The South African Professional Football Players Union (SAFPU) hails the decision of the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport (SAIDS) Anti-Doping Tribunal which heard the case of Josta Dladla and handed down its decision this week. SAFPU supported Josta throughout the process and testified on his behalf regarding the model professional he has been, as well as the lack of understanding of the dangers of supplements—particularly in football.

The Tribunal had regard to the fact that Josta did not intentionally dope his personal circumstances, and his honesty. It acted correctly, independently, and fairly. The members of the Tribunal should be commended for being prepared to limit the sanction applicable to Josta and lift his suspension in light of the facts. Had that not happened there is no doubt that his career would have been over. The most important message that must go out to all footballers, clubs, agents, and all those engaged in sports is that the time has come for greater education, understanding and for protocols to be put in place to better protect innocent footballers.

When most of us hear of positive doping tests, we either think it is like the Lance Armstrong case—where there is deliberate cheating—or a careless mistake. We do not understand that most positive results are probably innocent but could result from lack of understanding of the risks. If we do not learn about anti-doping and how it works, we continue to place all footballers at risk. That is a disservice to them—one that we must all address.

To illustrate this, Josta, did not try to enhance his performance or take drugs. He only consumed supplements recommended to him that were completely lawful and he has been using them for many years, he has been tested many times and always stayed clean. He made no secret of what he was taking and always explained to SAIDS before each test precisely what he had consumed and was handed a container with a different brand name when he went to buy more of the supplements (Creatine), which he has always been using that found himself with a product different from Creatine. It contained a substance known as MHA. Josta had never heard of it. Not much is known about MHA but it is on the prohibited list.

It did not enhance his performance. MHA is the same substance that the national rugby players, Basson and Ralepele, tested positive for. They too fell victim to the sort of mistake that happened to Josta and could have been banned for two years. If he had, his career would have been over, because someone gave him a container which contained something he had never heard of and relies on his career to support his family, just like many other footballers. He has a wife and three children. He probably would never have played again. This is a very serious matter.

If a doctor gives you a substance, or if a chemist hands you a container and promises you that there is only Creatine in it and it turns out that they are wrong, you are guilty. That is that. If you can show that it was an error, and you can show how the substance got into your body, and you can show that you did not intend to dope; then you have a chance to argue for a sanction less than the two-year standard sanction. But even then, you will have to show why this happened, that you were not so negligent that you should be banned.

Josta is not a cheat. That makes it essential to learn from this. SAFPU calls for the entire football industry—particularly professional footballers—to take heed of this case and the risks. We need to find ways to educate all footballers and also put in place systems that will ensure that there is not just a general understanding of anti-doping, supplements, and risks, but also a protocol put in place to practically find ways to protect innocent athletes. The only way to be entirely safe is to consume nothing at all. But that is not possible. So, we need to have testing processes available to footballers so that they can bring in whatever supplements they are taking and have the actual container assessed. That is crucial. It is not enough to rely on the fact that you are taking Creatine, for an example, because it is completely lawful and widely taken. You need to know that the actual brand and the actual container are in order.

SAFPU and SAIDS promised the Tribunal to contribute to better education as best as possible. We call upon all participants in football—including the Premier Soccer League (PSL) and South African Football Association—to join hands with us in this endeavour. This is an issue SAIDS cannot address on its own, nor can we. If we do not meet this challenge, we certainly could see more footballers in Josta’s state of affairs next year. And next time, a footballer’s career might end.