Essendon has taught sport a valuable lesson

Date: August 30, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

In 2009, the AFL exceeded $300 million in annual revenue for the first time.

The league is made up of 18 teams each of which operate annually on budgets in the tens of millions of dollars.

The AFL is big business.

Yet, we have witnessed a saga in recent times at the Essendon Football Club that has looked unlike anything you would normally expect from a large business.

With the ASADA investigation into the use of banned substances ongoing, the sanctions that were handed by the AFL to Essendon and three of its key personnel on Tuesday night were centred on failed governance and management practices.

North of the Victorian border there has been a similar problem in the National Rugby League competition.

The Cronulla Sharks are also under investigation by ASADA for alleged use of banned substances in 2011.

Earlier this year, the Sharks’ board sacked general manager Darren Mooney and head trainer Mark Noakes while club doctor David Givney and club physiotherapist Konrad Schultz were told their services were longer required.

Central to the problems of both Essendon and Cronulla is sports scientist Stephen Dank.

The other common thread between the two scandals is a serious shortcoming in regard to management, governance and oversight.

In the 21st century world of big business sport the failures at both clubs are totally unacceptable.

There are two key ‘crimes’ in sport that sit far and above all else – match-fixing and doping.

They are seen as the two ultimate betrayals of the sport and the fans.

Both erode the credibility of the sport involved and the level of deception associated with each is seismic in its effect.

If found guilty of either misdemeanour, those involved are guaranteed hefty penalties with match-fixers open to the full force of the law with respect to fraud charges.

When it comes to the use of banned substances there is also the question of player welfare.

In handing down the penalties to Essendon on Tuesday night, AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick said the club “acknowledged it had established a supplements program that was experimental, inappropriate and inadequately vetted and controlled … and is unable now to determine whether players were administered some substances prohibited by the AFL Anti-Doping Code and the World Anti-Doping Code”.

The management failures at Essendon were first highlighted when an internally generated review was conducted by former Telstra CEO, Ziggy Switkowski earlier this year.

His findings were particularly damning of the club’s processes that allowed for the potential use of prohibited substances.

In any workplace nowadays there is an expectation that the employer will respect its entire staff by applying an overarching duty of care for their well-being.

That was clearly not the case at Essendon.

The failure to professionally oversee its sports science protocols was substantial as the club seemed to adopt a somewhat laissez faire attitude with respect to player welfare.

The lack of adequate paperwork detailing what substances were administered is simply amateur.

The lack of any form of effective vertical reporting structure with regard to the program was also amateurish.

Yet these half-hearted efforts were allowed to occur inside a multi-million dollar enterprise.

The fans can rightly feel incredible disappointment at the total lack of adequate governance.

However, over and above all the administrative failings was the fact that there was a totally unacceptable and cavalier approach when it came to the question of employee welfare.

When players are allegedly administered a substance that emanated from overseas and was brought into the country by a sufferer of muscular dystrophy for specific use in regard to his medical condition it is a gross case of negligence.

The fact that to this day the club has no idea what was actually contained in the substance injected into its players is reprehensible.

There is no workplace in the country where such a casual disregard for employee health and well-being would be tolerated and neither should it.

The AFL has found that the Essendon Football Club did not set out to cheat.

Some still question that finding.

However, there is absolutely no doubt at all that the club’s complete breakdown of accepted management practices in the area of its sports science program opened up a Pandora’s Box.

When staff are on a leave of absence for any reason or there are staff called upon to act in higher positions while vacancies are unfilled there is always an expectation that there will be sufficient oversight to ensure that standard operating procedures are not compromised.

At both Essendon and Cronulla there were severe breakdowns in these areas.

When it comes to doping in sport there has been more than enough examples in recent times that should have served as massive alarm bells for any professional sporting organization.

When it comes to the application of sports science nowadays there is no excuse whatsoever for tardy governance.

Turning a blind eye or failing to institute the right checks and balances is a complete abrogation of responsibility.

In Essendon’s case there was an admission that it was embarking on a program that was going to push the limits it was surely incumbent to ensure that the dam wall was not breached.

It failed to do that – spectacularly.

Cronulla has also dropped the ball in a big way.

Big sport is big business.

It is high time then that those who administer it come to terms with the expectations of what that entails.

Hopefully every sport in this country has learned a valuable lesson when it comes to the requisite systems required in relation to its sports science applications.

Sadly, however, learning from other’s mistakes is not something historically that has been a common practice when it comes to doping.

If it was, a lot more administrators and athletes would still be plying their trade rather than sitting ostracized on the sidelines.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 29 August 2013