Essendon CAS Verdict: The Punishment Befits The Crime

THE WORLD Anti-Doping Authority decision to ban 34 past and present players over a “supplements” scandal at the Essendon Football Club is welcome, finally dispensing justice befitting the methodical use of illegal peptides to cheat in Australia’s premier sport. The players aren’t victims: excusing them would embolden every maggot worldwide, charged with athletes, who may be tempted to seek competitive gain by illicit and duplicitous means.

First things first: if I don’t make this obligatory disclaimer, one reader or another who knows me personally will in comments; not only am I a lifelong, devout supporter and long-time member of the Carlton Football Club — the sworn arch-enemy of the Essendon Football Club — but I have for decades harboured a deep and residual hatred for Essendon that (I admit) borders on the pathological.

On one level, yesterday was a very happy day. But only so far as Essendon’s likely win-loss ratio this year is concerned.

The truth is that I have avoided commenting on the train wreck Essendon’s ill-fated and disastrous experimentation with “supplements” has turned into for a number of reasons; obviously, events and investigations had to run their course, and over the past three and a half years it seemed imprudent to make comment in this column over the biggest scandal in Australian sport before it drew to completion.

But with no appeal permitted against the Court of Arbitration for Sport decision yesterday to suspend 34 past and present Bombers players over the clandestine and as it transpires illicit “supplements” program that operated at Essendon in early 2012, the kindest thing that can be said is that gross stupidity and incompetence have been met with the only reward they warranted.

And before we get too far in, readers may like to catch up on a selection of the news reports and comment from yesterday’s events here, here and here.

Yet with the inevitable accusations of blame and debate over who is “innocent,” who the “victims” are, and what the consequences of yesterday’s decision will be in the short and long-term, one thing is clear: the villain in this piece, at the root of everything leading up to yesterday’s announcement, is the club itself; the entity I spent years at one point referring to only as an “Evil Empire” — not disgraced “sports scientist” Stephen Dank, or former player and coach James Hird, or any of a raft of other Essendon people — is where the finger must be pointed by friends and enemies of Essendon alike, for whichever way you cut it, ultimately the club has nobody to blame for the debacle but itself.

This proud club, equalled in historic success only by my own over the past 140-odd years, is on its knees, and as a Carlton person who stuck ferociously loyal during the dark days of the salary rorts scandal in 2002 and for years afterwards, I know what it feels like: and what it will feel like, for the shame and ridicule and stigma that will follow Essendon after yesterday will persist for years, just as it did at Carlton.

If, of course, Essendon even survives it.

But yesterday’s decision by CAS was, in my view, inevitable from the moment the AFL’s Mickey Mouse, keystone, hillbilly, kangaroo court spat in ASADA’s face last year by emphatically clearing the Essendon “supplements” program, the club, its staff and its players over suspected breaches of the WADA anti-doping code at the AFL tribunal; lawyers I’ve intermittently spoken with and other football people in the know all concurred that (to put it most kindly) the tribunal erred by testing the allegations of banned substance use against a test of “reasonable doubt” when the required standard to uphold the charges was the less onerous test of “comfortable satisfaction.”

I don’t propose to trawl through the details of the case — we don’t have the time for it and in any case, I think most people have a basic comprehension of the story as it heads toward its fourth birthday — but the “supplements” program that Dank ran was based in little documentation and even less record keeping; it featured ambiguous and conflicting accounts of who was injected with what, and when; it saw players signing “informed” consent forms to receive injections when it is now clear there was no information of any meaningful use given and no substantial questions raised by the players; and a modus operandi adopted by almost all of the key players at the Essendon Football Club once the crisis became public that if you see it, sue it.

That Essendon is now onto its third club chairman in as many years since the scandal first broke on the so-called blackest day in Australian sport downplays, if anything, the utter culpability the club as an institution and an entity — to say nothing of its standing as an employer — bears in allowing and sanctioning the activities that led to yesterday’s outcome to have ever taken place.

There is a place for legitimate supplements programs in all sports, and Australian football is no different. But from the outset it was apparent, from the testimony collected by ASADA investigators, that many prominent figures at Essendon were aware that what Dank was implementing at least pushed the envelope. Yet far from sounding the alarm, or motivating careful oversight and unimpeachable documentation, the anarchic and chaotic nature of the program caused nary a ripple among the best of Essendon’s inner coterie, which is bizarre, to say the least.

I say “nary a ripple” for the only person to make any kind of effort to challenge the “supplements” program or to try to shut it down — albeit without success — was long-time club doctor Bruce Reid, who as far as I can see is the only individual in the mire engulfing the Bombers who is even entitled to still call himself a loyal servant of his club. Reid’s, of course, was a lone voice of opposition, silenced at least part of the time by the managers of the “supplements” program simply cutting him out of the loop.

But Reid tried, which is more than anyone can say of the likes of James Hird, or Mark Thompson, or the rest of the “loyal” Essendon coterie who let it go on right under their noses.

Frankly, the same could be said of the AFL itself: and if a procession of resignations from the AFL Commission does not follow yesterday’s decision, it will be an indication that little has really been learned.

Already, the AFL Players’ Association (and, I’m told, some agitators at Essendon and within the Commission) are arguing the AFL should abandon the WADA doping code: to do so would be unthinkable, and would merely telegraph to the rest of the world, quite literally, that the comfort and cosy isolation of Australia’s indigenous football code is more important than the fact junking the world standard in doping laws would make it look like a dirty sport contested by tainted athletes — or, at the minimum, prepared to treat transgressions with kid gloves when they occur.

That particular rod is one the AFL made for its own back years ago, with its ridiculous “three strikes” policy on recreational drug use, an unacceptably liberal policy in professional sport compounded by jaw-dropping provisions for players who self-reported to be spared its harshest consequences, or in some cases any consequences at all.

It is true the evidence used against Essendon was circumstantial; it couldn’t be otherwise, given most records relating to the “supplements” program were either destroyed or never kept in the first place.

What were the players actually injected with? Who knows, for certain. Nobody has produced evidence to corroborate the stout Essendon insistence that the peptides used were permitted.

But the stony silence of Dank, his suppliers, and the players provided telltale indications all was not right; the fact the frequency of some of the injections as testified to almost perfectly matched the regimen for use of the banned peptide Thymosin Beta-4 helped to paint a damning picture of flagrant disregard for international doping regulations made possible by the wilful evasion of solid testimony and through the lack of rigorous documentation — detail that any program of the massive scope of Essendon’s could not reasonably have expected not to be kept.

If Essendon’s players were only ever administered legal peptides, it is the club’s own fault — and of course, the fault of its servants — that it never kept concrete records to substantiate it.

The price the club has paid and will continue to pay, therefore, is a reasonable one, and although some people bracket the Essendon “supplements” scandal with the Carlton salary cap furore of almost 15 years ago, I say the Essendon breaches are far, far more serious.

Carlton broke the rules, yes: but collectively paying three or four players a couple of hundred thousand dollars under the table, when they would in likelihood have stayed at the club anyway — not that I’m in any way sanctioning it — is one thing.

But a scandal over systemic, methodical drug cheating — which is what this is, either by use of banned substances or the moronic and cretinously derelict failure to keep track of whatever legal substances are claimed to have instead been administered — is quite another.

There is something about drug cheating that transcends just about ever other possible transgression in the sporting world; tainted, dirty athletes competing in events and contests that are in consequence tainted and dirty themselves. What has happened at Essendon is unforgivable. If those associated with the club wish to protest their innocence, they must also proclaim their utter stupidity and incompetence.

Personally, my view is that the banned substances were indeed administered to the Essendon players, although everyone will have an opinion, and differences over those will shape debate for years. The fact is that it has happened, and now concluded.

When the WADA appeal process began, it was understood by all parties that there was no right of appeal once CAS delivered its verdict: this time, it would be final.

It is an appalling show of poor faith, therefore, that having campaigned to have the CAS hearing take place in Sydney — rather than in Switzerland, where WADA is based — that some in the Essendon community now seek to appeal in the NSW Supreme Court on the basis that as the hearing occurred in Sydney, the NSW Courts must have jurisdiction to overturn the result.

It is to be hoped endeavours of that nature are quickly dispensed with, for after nearly four years, there is a limit to how much the football public, the players and the Essendon Football Club itself can tolerate before this fiasco begins to cause serious and irreparable damage to the code and to the AFL itself.

For from this point, the ramifications will reverberate for a long time to come irrespective of whether any further challenges ensue.

Whilst they mightn’t appeal in the NSW Courts, players could well sue the Essendon Football Club and the AFL; already reeling from draft and monetary penalties two years ago for poor governance in the “supplements” matter, the cost to Essendon could conceivably top a hundred million dollars.

There might not be an Essendon — at least in its present form — in five years’ time, if the big hits heading its way damage it badly enough; I think the competition needs Essendon, although I simply want the opportunity to see footballers in blue belt the bejesus out of footballers in red and black on the scoreboard every time the two meet. Killing the club off isn’t an agenda item of mine. But with 12 first-choice players wiped out this year as a result of the WADA verdict, I’m looking forward to Essendon having a very, very bad season indeed.

Should Jobe Watson be allowed to keep the Brownlow Medal he won in 2012, at the height of the “supplements” program? No. The award is tainted, and to now allow Watson to retain it would permanently tarnish the fine tradition of awarding a medal to the fairest and most brilliant player as judged by the game umpires every season. Retrospectively, Watson’s involvement in the program has ruled him ineligible through suspension. The joint runners-up — Hawthorn’s Sam Mitchell and Richmond’s Trent Cotchin — should be jointly declared Brownlow Medallists for 2012, and all mention of Watson’s award erased from official records.

There are many aspects of this issue I’m not covering today — partly owing to constraints of time and the need for some modicum of concision, but also because I’m sure there will be opportunities to revisit this matter over a period of years — but with sport so often intersecting with politics, whether through funding, legislation, or the old-fashioned fact that “business” is so often done at a football match (and particularly here in Melbourne) the Essendon debacle is not inconsistent with a discussion forum on events in politics.

But we won’t be making a habit of it.

Yet there is one thing I wish to be abundantly clear on in closing this morning, and it’s that the players — all 34 of them, whether still at Essendon, at other clubs, playing or coaching in suburban and provincial leagues, or retired from football altogether — are not the innocent victims in all of this, as an avalanche of PR spin and media influence has sought to persuade people over the past 24 hours.

There is adequate evidence that the players failed to question what they were given; refused to disclose what they knew; kept a tight code of secrecy insisted upon by the club to their own detriment; and in some cases were proven to have returned elevated levels of the banned Thymosin peptide at the heart of the ASADA/WADA case. All 34 players had managers, with whom presumably few or none bothered to discuss the proposed injection regime.

There is no evidence of any player having sought legal advice or other professional direction on the program from outside the Essendon Football Club at the time.

An unkind (and often patently false) cliché is that footballers are stupid clods with no capacity to do much more than play football, drink beer, and screw girls. Even if you subscribe to that cynical and noxious view, and even if the 34 footballers in question are as thick as two short planks, they have plenty of people around them who aren’t: but they never bothered to make use of them to clarify their positions at all.

There is adequate reason, therefore, to conclude the players contributed to the scope of the penalty they have been handed: an assertion well borne out by the fact that on no fewer than at least three previous occasions over the past two years, they were unanimous in rejecting “deals” offered by the AFL and/or ASADA that would have seen them miss few (if any) competitive matches of football, rather than the entire season they will now be prohibited from contesting in the wake of yesterday’s decision.

But there is a deeper — and irrefutable — reason the Essendon players must be heavily punished, and it is this.

Were they to be excused for whatever role they played (or unwittingly served, if that indeed were so) in the Essendon “supplements” scandal, the direct consequence would be to green-light and embolden every dodgy maggot across the world, charged with the training and management of professional athletes and sportsmen, to seek to acquire competitive advantage via whatever illicit and dubious method imaginable.

The emphasis would switch from compliance with strict but perfectly reasonable drug and doping codes to simply getting the juice into players and athletes in any way possible: by lacing their food and drink with it, or by supplying “topical” creams laced with it, or even by the baldly audacious path of a program of injections with a complete lack of documentation.

After all, so long as the players don’t know what they’ve taken, who cares if it helps them win or lose? They’re not to blame, are they?

Of course they are, and if Essendon’s players have ingested anything prohibited at all, it closes the arc to placing the ultimate blame on the Evil Empire they are contracted to play for.

The punishment befits the crime. And if no crime was in fact committed at Essendon, and yesterday’s decision was made in error of fact, the club and the players have had years to prove it.

That opportunity has now expired. Time will tell whether the aftershocks consume the club along with it.