Thursday, 29 August 2013


This week, a seven month’s saga involving a prominent Melbourne-based Australian Rules Football club, Essendon, and its governing body, the Australian Football League (AFL), was finally resolved. Because of its lack of governance and failure in its duty of care to its players, Essendon lost its premiership points for the current season, incurred a fine of $2 million and lost draft picks as a result of sanctions applied by the AFL. Also its key staff, including its coach, James Hird, were either banned from the game for varying periods or fined. These penalties were the harshest ever handed out to a club in the history of the game.

   This has been a traumatic time for everyone involved or interested in Australia’s game, especially with the finals two weeks away, and the credibility and reputation of footy has taken a hit.

   In quaint, anachronistic legalese, the AFL charged Essendon with ‘conduct unbecoming or likely to prejudice the interests or reputation of the AFL or bring the game of football into disrepute’.

   In short, Essendon allowed a loose, secretive regime of injections to be frequently administered to players to improve their performances, increase their strength and speed and aid in their recovery from injuries. When the secret got out, it was discovered that no-one, including the players, had any idea of what they had been injected with over many months. They thought the injections were vitamins and legal, though unspecified, ‘amino acids’. Apparently each player, bar one (he didn’t like needles), had hundreds of injections from late 2011 through 2012.  A biochemist ran the program, but didn’t keep any records and even kept the club doctor in the dark, presumably with the blessings of the coach and others in the Football Department of the club.

   Then it really hit the fan with rumours circulating that the biochemist had been using drugs banned by the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) and that the players had, in effect, been used as human guinea-pigs. By this time the biochemist had been sacked for unauthorised spending on ‘amino acids’, which is a non-specific description on the invoices issued by the pharmaceutical supplier. When things looked like hotting up, the club reported it had some concerns about its program to the AFL and to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA). Seven months of investigation followed with ASADA releasing its preliminary report a few weeks ago and the AFL Commission laying charges against Essendon and its key staff soon after.

   Then the horse-trading began between the AFL Commission and Essendon, with the former adamant that the club and its key officers had to pay the penalty for, at least, creating a pharmaceutical experimental environment for its players without any safeguards protecting them.

   Disappointingly both Essendon and its coach initially rejected most charges and threatened legal action, as well as throwing up smokescreens blaming certain AFL officers and/or the media for conducting witch hunts. The club’s objective, as it turned out, was to remove the innuendo in the charges that it had deliberately introduced banned substances to gain a competitive advantage over other clubs.

   As for James Hird, a football legend from his playing days and Essendon’s favourite son, he had hired the best lawyers in town months ago, as well as a media-expert to run interference. He repeatedly denied any wrong-doing whatsoever. Only his most one-eyed fans – and there were plenty of them – would have fallen for that. The evidence was damning that he allowed and was aware of a needle-injected supplements regime that ran out of control. Whether he was aware and approved of banned substances being administered is open to conjecture – so the AFL Commission gave him the benefit of the doubt in this regard.

   In the end, after his club had buckled under the sheer weight of the evidence against it, negotiated the revised wording of the charges with the suggestion of drug-cheating now eliminated and reluctantly accepted the penalties – did Hird back down from his legal threats and abjectly apologise to the AFL Commission and accepted his medicine – a one year ban from coaching.

   The next day, would you believe, Hird’s high-profile lawyer went on radio to declare Hird a hero for backing down for the sake of the club and had done ‘absolutely nothing wrong’ and was innocent! And later Hird stated ‘he was unfairly dealt with’, making a mockery of his admission of fault and his apologies to the Commission on the previous night. Hello! Spin was still alive and well.

   So what’s my point?

   James Hird has been offered a two-year coaching contract with Essendon after he completes his one year ban.

   Let’s hope for the thousands of Essendon supporters around the country that he returns to the game a lot wiser and more willing to admit his mistakes.

   James, to err is human. To own up and be genuinely sorry when you stuff up, is divine.     

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