What lessons can be learned from the Essendon saga?

Date: August 2, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

I have a seven-year-old son and given he has grown up in a household that loves sport and his parents have turned their passion into careers, he too has become besotted with sport.

He loves all kinds of sport and takes part in the modified versions of cricket and Australian Football and is a member of a little athletics club.

When he is at home he seems to perennially have a ball in his hand – playing his own imaginary games, often replete with commentary.

To him, sport is a game – a past time, a way to interact with his mates.

I have no idea how far he will progress in life with his sporting pursuits.

No parent of a seven-year-old ever does.

But, one day, there is the prospect that sport will cease to be a pastime or a game and become a job, a business.

Somewhere in everyone’s sporting journey that leads to being a professional athlete there is a line that it is crossed.

It is the line where you see your sport in a different light.

Yes, it may still provide enjoyment, but that enjoyment is often not measured as it was when you were merely playing a game.

Professional sport is a business – a big business in most cases.

Just this week we have seen the news that 26-year-old Napoli forward Edinson Cavani is moving to Paris Saint-Germain for a deal reported to be worth $93 million.

That transfer fee alone would pay the salary bill for ten entire AFL clubs for a whole year.

Big sport is big money.

And with that comes an expectation – success.

In any sport, there can only be one winner, whether that is an individual or a team.

And the pursuit to fill that coveted position on the top step of the podium has seen athletes, coaches and clubs push the envelope, if not rip it open and enter an area within sport that raises arguably the greatest taboo – cheating.

It is all about getting the edge – gaining that tiny advantage over an opponent that may be the difference between winning or finishing second.

At times, the pursuit of first place can blur the lines.

The present saga surrounding the Essendon Football Club is a case in point.

In the chase for that little bit extra, a club has been thrown into turmoil and the very nature of the code at the highest level questioned.

Accusations and counter accusations have been freely tossed around.

Over the course of nearly six months the matter has been dissected in the media and at water coolers in myriad offices.

And, all the while, both ASADA and the AFL have been carrying out a seemingly never-ending investigation.

The findings are expected to be tabled with the AFL Commission sometime next week although this saga has been one that has seen constantly shifting goal posts.

One thing is nearly certain as we tick down to the public release of the investigation’s findings – there will be NO winners.

Regardless of the outcome everyone involved will carry a taint – the Essendon Football Club, its administration, football department and players, and the AFL itself.

Already we have seen the resignations at Essendon of the president and the CEO as a result of the personal stresses that this saga has wrought.

The practices that were sanctioned at Essendon will without any doubt bring about changes to the permissible medical protocols within the AFL.

One can rightfully expect that fines will also be levied against the club.

Worse could certainly still occur and is resting on the findings of the investigation.

Perhaps, the most telling impact this process has had on the individuals concerned came last night in a Seven Network special that saw Dean Robinson, the former high performance manager at Essendon, give his account of what transpired at the club throughout 2012.

Sitting before the cameras was a man who looked completely broken.

The veracity of his ‘evidence’ may well be supported or otherwise when the final report is published.

However, regardless of that, it was hard to watch a father of four young children in tears and speaking of how close he came to suicide as a result of this experience.

We all got into sport for the pure joy and elation it could bring.

Yet, as this football season has unfolded it is hard to imagine what joy has been garnered by those involved with Essendon.

Yes, the team is ensconced in the top-four, but there is no escaping the toll and additional baggage that all involved at the club have had to carry throughout the year.

The thought of players receiving countless jabs in the abdomen – and none truly understanding the full nature of what was going into their bodies – throughout the season in a bid to gain that small edge makes you wonder again about the win at all costs mentality that is nowadays all too pervasive in elite sport.

Hopefully, in the footballing codes in this country, the saga at Essendon and those in the NRL, will ram home to all those involved that some practices are just not culturally acceptable whether they fall within or outside the legal parameters of fair play.

The AFL will certainly tighten its practices and it would be unsurprising if other codes within Australia follow suit.

The unholy dollar and the expectation that comes with it has helped change the landscape of sport.

It has allowed us to see many performances that we would not have otherwise witnessed in the past by the sheer fact that professionalism has allowed the participants to become full-time athletes, allowing them far greater scope and opportunity to their hone their skills.

However, allied to that are also the associated expectations that come with professionalism.

Stuart O’Grady, one of Australia’s most decorated cyclists, has recently had his entire 20-year career tarnished by the admission that he used PED’s for, as he has stated, a two-week period in mid-1998.

Not all were surprised at his outing for it was just another case of a drug cheat in the seemingly infested world of professional cycling, whose hot bed is in Continental Europe.

We would be naïve to believe that sport conducted within our borders is not also tainted – the ACC report has told us that.

But, hopefully, the happenings at Essendon will see a concerted change in practices at elite football clubs throughout the country.

The issue at the Bombers has highlighted the need for comprehensive administrative accountability, due diligence, duties of care and open and honest lines of communication.

Let this be a lesson to all those involved in elite level team sport in this country that seeking victory is an expectation, but when it comes to chemical enhancement, there will always be a public perception as to what is acceptable and what is not.

And, on top of that, regulatory bodies such as ASADA will also have their say and we will find out very shortly just how loud and admonishing its voice is in the Essendon case.

In the meantime, I hope my boy gets a kick or two at Aus Kick this Sunday and when he does it brings a smile to his face, because I sure know his Dad will beaming.

Sometimes, it is the simplest things in sport that bring the greatest rewards.

And perhaps, we should never lose sight of that fact.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 1 August 2013