James Hird’s future far from clear

Date: April 15, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

There is one thing that is certain with regard to the Essendon drug scandal – James Hird is guilty.

Guilty of naivety.

Hird has a CV in the sport that reads like few others in the code’s history – 253 games, dual premiership player (once as captain), Brownlow medallist, Norm Smith medallist, Jim Stynes medallist, triple ANZAC Day medallist, 5-time All-Australian, 5-time club best & fairest, member of the Essendon Team of The Century and a member of the AFL Hall of Fame.

And all through that glittering career he was one of the AFL’s prime pin-up boys.

He played the game hard yet always within the rules and at times fans marvelled at his silky skills.

Even rusted on supporters of other clubs begrudgingly admired the way he went about things.

When he retired he did so as one of the greats.

And, when his beloved Bombers fell on hard times in the years following his retirement, Hird was the one who the board felt it needed to steer the club in the right direction.

After a protracted struggle, the club got its wish with Hird enticed to step away from his media and business commitments and re-enter the AFL fray at the expense of the incumbent Matthew Knights.

He officially took the helm in late-September 2010.

The legion of Essendon fans sensed the Hird appointment would turn the club around and position it once again as a power in the competition.

In his first season he took the club into September action and in 2012 the side won eight of its first nine matches but a disastrous back-end to the year saw them finish in 11th position.

This season loomed as a crucial one for Hird, his support staff and the board.

Anything other than a finals berth would be deemed unacceptable.

Outwardly, everything was on track through the pre-season before things blew up in the first week of February.

Just days before the ACC released its explosive report into alleged improprieties in elite level sport in this country the Bombers hierarchy called a media conference.

Chairman David Evans, CEO Ian Robson and Hird told the assembled journalists that the club had raised concerns with both ASADA and the AFL over some of the medical practices that were being administered within the club.

The concern centred on the supplements that had been supplied to players under the auspices of sports scientist Stephen Dank.

Hird’s reaction at the time was one of dismay.

Whilst he stated that he felt the players had not been administered illegal substances he nonetheless was far from happy, saying ‘My understanding is that we worked within the framework that was given to us by the AFL and by WADA and I’m shocked to be sitting here, really’.

Hird admitted at the media conference, that ‘As the leader of the football department, as the coach, I take full responsibility for what happens within our football department’.

Well James, had you done even a modicum of investigation into the practices in place you would have found out immediately that you and the club were in trouble.

Almost all the focus on the WADA Code is around the use of banned substances – whether players took them, whether it was knowingly, who was responsible?

But that is only one part of the equation when it comes to administering substances to players.

The method of delivery is also a major issue.

And as far as Essendon is concerned it administered supplements to its players in an illegal fashion.

The use of intravenous infusions is prohibited in sport except when they are used for a legitimate medical treatment.

The suppling of supplements via IV is an illegal practice and in breach of the code.

One of the precedents in this area was set as a result of an intravenous nutrient mixture that was designed by American sports physician John Myers.

The so-called ‘Myers Cocktail’ contains substances such as B and C vitamins, magnesium and calcium.

In other words, it is a quintessential supplement used to aid recovery.

The ingredients, whilst not on the banned list, do however raise a red flag when they are administered through an IV.

The WADA Code emphasises that both the athlete and the athlete support personnel are subject to an anti-doping violation for such a practice.

And, by its own admission, the Essendon Football Club used IVs, administered in a sterile off-site environment, to ‘feed’ their players substances.

Straight away the club is in breach of the anti-doping laws.

It has been reported of late that long-term club doctor Bruce Reid raised issues with the club with regard to the supplement program.

He did so in writing, however the club has said that the correspondence was not tabled at board level.

The other issue is whether on top of the illegal delivery system banned substances were also infused.

As late as this week the club said it could still not guarantee that its players were not given illegal substances.

The SMS trail between Hird and Dank that became public this week further enhanced the level of knowledge the coach had about the sports science practices that were in place at the club with the term ‘IV’ being used between the pair.

As a sidelight, Dank has alleged that he injected Hird with a substance that is banned under the WADA Code – Hexarelin which is used to burn fat, gain muscle and aid recovery time.

Being a coach, and not an athlete, Hird has not broken any specific rules by using such a substance, however he strongly refutes Dank’s allegation as to the nature of the injections he received.

But should it be proved that he did use Hexarelin the act will not be looked upon favourably by the AFL in these times where perception is everything.

AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou suggested late in the week that Hird should consider stepping aside as coach until the matter is cleared up one way or another.

Some reports say that the Essendon board suggested likewise on Wednesday but after consulting his lawyer Hird stood strong.

His players did him proud on the ground in Perth on Friday night with a stirring come from behind victory over Fremantle to remain undefeated and atop the table.

One wonders what the AFL hierarchy currently thinks about the Bombers start to the season.

Demetriou said during week that, ‘I’m privy to information that goes beyond what’s been reported’, and alluded to the fact that there may be some more bombshells still to come as a result of ASADA’s ongoing investigations.

The fact that he made this statement in the same interview in which he suggested Hird consider stepping down does not bode well.

The AFL has the power to de-register Hird but should they opt for that course of action there would be a large groundswell in favour of the coach given his standing in the sport and the oft-acknowledged belief of innocence until proven guilty.

If the unpublished issues that Demetriou mentioned involve Essendon and are of a serious nature, taking action in-season against a team highly placed on the ladder will drastically reshape things.

What we do know is that the Bombers have already breached the anti-doping code through some of their practices.

Whether they are found guilty of more serious crimes remains to be seen.

This issue is far from finalized but hopefully, for all concerned, it does not remain that way for much longer.

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

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