On occasion the media take issues in sport that are not anything of note and attempt to make them newsworthy. They will peddle scandal and salacious headlines in an effort to get website hits and sell papers in an ever increasingly competitive market.
In these situations, fans of the sport rightly get up in arms, pointing out particular journalist’s issues with certain clubs and players and they dismiss the stories as out of hand and offer their loyalty to the teams they proudly support. The drugs scandal that is currently plaguing the AFL and in particular one of its franchise clubs in Essendon is not a situation created by media manipulation in order to sell papers.
On February 5th 2013, the integrity of the AFL was challenged in a way it has never been in the sport’s history. The Essendon Football club called a press conference about concern over supplements given to players during its 2012 Premiership campaign. In making this statement about the possible concerning nature of some supplements, Essendon made a very clever publicity-generating manoeuvre, requesting assistance from ASADA and the AFL in investigating the program.
Twenty-four hours later, what the former head of ASADA, Richard Ings, described as the “blackest day in Australian sport” occurred. The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) held a press conference, headed by Sports Minister Kate Lundy, Justice Minister Jason Clare and attended by AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou as well as the heads of other major sporting codes in Australia.
Lundy stated, “If you want to dope and cheat, we will catch you.” There were major shockwaves from this press conference and the implication that multiple sports had been exposed to dangerous practises with substances not approved for human use that in some cases had been sourced from criminal organisations.
While many have praised Essendon for coming forward, the club’s apparently sudden realisation of possible irregularities involving supplements and the decision to call a press conference about it happened the day before the press conference regarding the 12-month investigation conducted by the ACC.
The AFL Commission called an emergency meeting and brought all 18 clubs in to discuss the issue, making immediate changes to it’s policies regarding mandatory reporting and an audit of all supplements utilised by all clubs.
By February 10th, the AFL revealed that it had awareness of two instances related to possible use of performance enhancing drugs; one a single player who remains unnamed, and the other involved the Essendon Football Club.
In the following months, this issue has received a tremendous amount of press, but there are still very few facts known. The lack of hard evidence available as the ASADA investigation is still underway, has led to a lot of speculation and accusations.
There have been calls for Essendon to be stripped of premiership points and equally bewildering declarations of undying loyalty for James Hird and Essendon, with the social media #teambombers and #standbyhird twitter hashtags even making it in the form of placards to an Essendon game.
Accusations of a media driven conspiracy theory designed to bring down the Bombers are rife on various fan forums, with rabid support of the red and the black unflagging even in the face of the recently released and increasingly damning Switkowski report.
Essendon released a highly edited version of Dr Ziggy Switkowski’s report, and it offered more questions than it really answered. The undeniable point was that Essendon’s football department operated without the professional checks and balances that exist for the commercial aspect of the football club.
Switkowski’s edited report highlights the danger to the organisation of an inexperienced coach in James Hird, and the confusion caused by a lack of clear management structures in terms of who was actually in charge of Essendon’s Football Department. Add into this chaos a fitness team that grew to seven staff in 2012 who were able to ‘largely ignore their attempts at direct management’ and Essendon is clearly a club which, by Chairman David Evan’s own admission, led to failed processes that placed the club in its current position.
The AFL Players Association has also reviewed the Switkowski report, and CEO Matt Finnis was damning in the information provided, stating that “no AFL Player should ever go to work in an environment which can be described as ‘pharmacologically experimental’ with potential exposure to ‘exotic compounds’ and ‘mysterious’ formulae. The report’s findings are immensely concerning to us.”
The word consistently thrown around in discussion of these reports and the fitness programs are supplements. The use of this word cleverly distracts from the fact that the alleged substances are not supplements that you can buy from your local health food store. Substances such as those alleged to have been utilised by Essendon; AOD-9604, Thymosin beta-4 and Hexarelin, are not merely supplements. They are banned by the ASADA code.
As Ings stated, “please stop using the term ‘supplements’. The substances at issue are not nutritional supplements. They are substances and compounds.”
Essendon as a club allegedly allowed a man in Stephen Dank, who is not a doctor of any kind (let alone a qualified medical practitioner), to run a sports program that could be labelled ‘cutting-edge’ at best, and ‘recklessly dangerous’ at worst. Essendon players were allegedly injected with unknown substances at sites away from club facilities and without the supervision of a doctor.
Widely respected Essendon medical head Dr. Bruce Reid expressed his concerns about the program in a letter handed to an unknown official that was never delivered to the Essendon Board. Players’ long and short-term health and careers were allegedly placed into the hands of a man with no medical qualifications at all.
A clear lack of corporate governance, veiled levels of secrecy, lack of communication and reporting in the pursuit of glory have sacrificed the principles and integrity supporters and players expect from the AFL. In pursuit of Premiership glory, Essendon have indeed pursued the path of ‘whatever it takes’, and in doing so allegedly put players at risk.
While Evans and Hird have confidence that Essendon will be found not guilty of having breached ASADA’s stringent codes and escape sanction, even the expert used to assess the chemical compounds utilised by the club, Professor McKinnon, has cautioned against his expertise being used to determine innocence.
McKinnon stated that his advice was an assessment of “expert pharmaceutical nature if you like, and not about the code or legality of any of these substances.” McKinnon also warned that incorrect preparation and supervision of the manufacturing of the substances could have potential health risks to players.
Members of ‘Team Bombers’ are doing the players they admire, the players they cheer every week, a disservice. Instead of blindly declaring loyalty for James Hird and David Evans, Essendon fans should be demanding accountability from Essendon’s administration, from the Board to every member of the coaching department. Demanding transparency and accountability from all staff while the ASADA investigation is underway is the best way that Essendon supporters can stand by their club.