Essendon let them down, but players only have themselves to blame

Date: January 13, 2016 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Bombers teamLet the floodgates open.

Following the decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to ban the ‘Essendon 34′ for 12 months, we can expect a raft of legal actions against the club.

CAS found there was sufficient evidence to indicate the players were administered the banned substance, Thymosin Beta-4.

The reaction on social media has been divided.

Some have spoken of a witch-hunt, others saying the players copped their fair whack, while many have pilloried the club for its performance-enhancing regime and the position it put its players in.

The biggest losers are the players themselves, 12 of whom are still on the Bombers’ list, while five others are on the lists of four other AFL clubs – Paddy Ryder and Angus Monfries (Port Adelaide), Stewart Crameri (Western Bulldogs), Jake Carlisle (St Kilda), and Jake Melksham (Melbourne).

The main point underpinning the WADA Code is clear-cut and non-negotiable: “It is each athlete’s personal duty to ensure that no Prohibited Substance enters his or her body.”

The players effectively signed away their rights in that respect by putting their names to a document that stated they agreed to be administered all substances that were deemed appropriate by the club.

Such a practice was unheard of within the AFL, and once it came to light many believed that it should have raised alarm bells among the players – especially men who had been on the list for many years – given they had never previously been required to make such a commitment.

Regardless of such action, the players in no way abrogated their responsibility with respect to the WADA Code.

It should be stressed that none of the players concerned ever returned positive tests that definitively indicated that they had been administered any banned substances. This case, and its final outcome, has been based on circumstantial evidence, whether it be paper trails or evidence given by those parties directly involved.

This is by no means unusual, with the likes of cycling, in particular, having seen many such cases that have resulted in substantial bans. The future of the anti-doping war will be through ways beyond simply the testing of athletes, utilising bodies like customs and law enforcement.

There has been sympathy for the Essendon players in some circles, with the premise they merely entrusted the club to do the right thing by them with respect to the conditioning regime being undertaken.

This sympathy was especially directed toward the younger players on the list.

Again, however, those young men were thoroughly educated by ASADA in lectures they would have received at their respective draft camps with regard to their responsibility as to what they were administered.

Still, the club has badly let them down.

The way the conditioning program was administered was lacking in most levels of governance. An internal investigation, carried out by Ziggy Switkowski in 2012, said as much:

“In particular the rapid diversification into exotic supplements, sharp increase in frequency of injections, the shift to treatment offsite in alternative medicine clinics, emergence of unfamiliar suppliers, marginalization of traditional medical staff etc combine to create a disturbing picture of a pharmacologically experimental environment never adequately controlled or challenged or documented within the Club in the period under review.”

The club and coach were handed hefty fines and suspensions by the AFL as a result of that lack of governance. The absence of documentation, in particular, painted a damning picture of the program that was carried out at the behest of rogue sports scientist Stephen Dank and conditioning expert Dean Robinson.

The bottom line is, to this day, the club cannot say what it was the players were administered.

While it has steadfastly denied the players were given banned substances, the club has no way of guaranteeing that fact given the lack of documentation. This will likely lead to the players launching legal action against the club.

They put their trust in their employer – again, at their own risk – and have been let down.

The club has already been devastated financially in fighting legal cases at various levels through this protracted saga. The war chest will be further depleted in the future.

The AFL has one other decision to make, and that is the legitimacy of Jobe Watson’s 2012 Brownlow Medal. It would be fanciful to think that decision can be anything other than to strip him of the sport’s most coveted individual award.

Watson, as club captain, dutifully carried the media load over the last four years. At 30 years of age and with a 12-month ban in place, we have likely seen the last of him on an AFL field.

There will likely be other players on the list who will either retire or look to change clubs once their bans have been lifted.

Many may say otherwise, but the CAS decision brands the 34 players as drug cheats. It may be a sad way for those players to be described, but in essence, that is what they have been classified as.

This sordid case will be a landmark in doping in this country, especially with respect to team sports. The Bombers have been dealt massive imposts over the past three years, including being stripped of a place in the 2012 AFL series.

The fans, many of whom have made not just an emotional commitment but a financial one to the club, will watch a team this season that will include top-up players previously not considered up to AFL level.

There have been no winners in this saga, ASADA included. While Australia’s anti-doping body has been vindicated in its pursuit of the players, the handling of the investigation has drawn much criticism.

James Hird, the former Essendon coach who was at the helm during the period concerned, has brandished the decision a “miscarriage of justice”.

On that point, fans of the code will make up their own mind.

What we do know, definitively, is that Essendon will be fielding a grossly understrength side under new coach John Worsfold this season, as there is no right of appeal to the bans the 12 present players have received.

For them, it is the end of the line.

However it is fair to surmise for the club, this saga is far from over.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 12 January 2016, soliciting 136 comments