Essendon knows what it faces, we now await the outcome

Date: August 15, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

In the past six months, Essendon coach James Hird has morphed into the AFL’s version of Tutankhamen – ‘The King of Denial’.

As late as yesterday morning, Hird responded to questions from journalists who door-stopped him at his house by saying that he would be “staggered and shocked” if the AFL laid charges as a result of the ASADA interim report.

Within hours, he was proved wrong.

Hird, along with senior assistant Mark Thompson, football manager Danny Corcoran and long-standing club doctor Bruce Reid were all charged under AFL rule 1.6 which relates to behaviour that is unbecoming or likely to prejudice the interests or reputation of the Australian Football League.

The football club itself has also been charged under the same rule in relation to the medical and sports science program that was conducted at Windy Hill in 2011 and 2012.

Essendon released a media statement last night saying that the charges relating to ASADA’s interim report would be “vigorously defended”.

It remains to be seen just when, or if, the AFL will make public the specific nature of the charges before they are heard by the AFL Commission on 26 August – under a fortnight from the start of the final series.

At this point Essendon players have escaped charges with AFL general counsel Andrew Dillon has stating that, “at the present time, no infraction notices will be issued under the AFL Anti-Doping Code”.

He was also quick to add that while the ASADA investigation remains open there could be further charges laid against other individuals in the future.

Over the next 12 days lawyers from both sides will be crafting their respective cases.

Given that no players face charges at this point there appears to be four options open to the AFL with respect to penalties – the stripping of premiership points; draft penalties; fines; and suspensions being handed to individuals.

Given the fact that the players have avoided sanction the prospect that premiership points will be stripped from the club appears less likely.

The loss of draft remains a possibility although the AFL Commission will well remember the devastating effect such an action had on Carlton in the mid-2000s and will perhaps be hesitant to take that path.

That leaves fines and suspensions for the four individuals who have been charged as the most likely penalties.

There is no doubt that the club itself will receive a substantial fine.

The Carlton Football Club was fined $930,000 for its salary cap breaches of 2002 while more recently the Melbourne Football club was hit with a $500,000 fine as a result of a tanking inquiry which in the end failed to definitively find guilt.

Given the tremendous focus the current saga has wrought on the league the club may well be staring down the barrel of a fine in the vicinity of $1.5 million.

Perhaps the most interesting penalty to come out of the Melbourne debacle was the fact that the AFL was heavy-handed with respect to the way it dealt with key individuals.

Despite being unable to prove that the club had in fact been involved in deliberate tanking, two key Demons’ personnel were suspended – the coach at the time, Dean Bailey, was banned from involvement with the sport for 16 weeks, while football manager Chris Connolly was ordered out of the sport for 12 months.

Those penalties do not augur well for the four Essendon individuals charged yesterday.

The AFL has always shown a strong desire to uphold the integrity of the competition and protect its brand when it comes to what it considers unacceptable behaviours from both its clubs and players.

The fact that this saga has been playing out in the national headlines for six months and has centred on what the club’s own internal review deemed a ‘pharmacologically experimental environment’ the AFL will no doubt push for suspensions for the ‘gang of four’.

Should that be the case, and if premiership points are not docked, there is the possibility that the Bombers could enter a finals campaign without the services of both the head coach and his number one lieutenant.

With the absence of player sanctions the AFL’s case will be built around the flawed and unacceptable governance within the club that allowed the sports science department to pretty much do its own thing due to a failure of an appropriate internal management mechanism.

The AFL may well take into consideration the strident comments made late last week by Matt Finnis, the head of the AFL Players’ Association, who said the interim report “paints a poor picture of the workplace these guys were working in and we don’t think any players should be put in that position”.

The AFL, and in particular its CEO Andrew Demetriou, have never been seen to take public criticism from within the league particularly well.

With new Essendon chairman Paul Little, and at times Hird, vocally critical of the AFL’s handling of this issue will rankle with certain people at AFL House.

‘Taking on City Hall’ in AFL terms has often proven to be a bruising encounter.

I doubt it will be any more compassionate this time around.

One man who was immediately critical of the AFL charges when they were announced last night was the sports scientist at the centre of the storm, Stephen Dank.

Speaking on radio last night Dank labelled the charges “a disgrace”.

The fact that the report handed to the AFL is an interim one has no doubt a lot to do with the fact that Dank has refused to co-operate with the ASADA investigators.

Given the authority’s powers of investigation were recently broadened and strengthened with the creation of an Act through federal parliament that came into effect on 1 August, more pressure will be brought to bear on Dank to provide evidence.

Should that occur there is the potential for further charges to be laid.

In the meantime, James Hird in particular, will spend his time shuffling between his legal counsel and his squad as he endeavours to clear his name with respect to any wrongdoing while simultaneously endeavouring to prepare his team for a premiership tilt next month.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 14 August 2013