In what light do we view James Hird?
Do we view him as a 20-year-old who seized every opportunity, being taken precariously late in the 1990 national draft with pick 79, to win a premiership and Brownlow Medal within his first five seasons in a 253-game career? Do we view him as the eventual captain, a role model and leader who took charge throughout the start of the last decade, winning a Norm Smith Medal in one of the best teams of the modern era, becoming one of the most admired players in the game?
Or, with the events of the past six months fresh in our minds, do we view him as a rogue and unstoppable coach who took his team slogan too literally and rocked and destabilised the football club he contributed so much towards?
Perhaps those actions, as the coach of the Essendon Football Club collaborating with sports scientist Stephen Dank and high performance manager Dean Robinson, amongst many others, will linger the longest, as the most recent. Potentially more so with the pending outcome of the ASADA investigation prompted by the creation of a “pharmacologically experimental environment”, as stated in Ziggy Switkowski’s club report in May.
Hird had previously noted, when Essendon initially announced what has become a saga as long as it is complex, that “as the leader of the football department, as the coach, I take full responsibility for what happens within our football department”.
That does not depict him well. Robinson suggested, in an interview with Channel Seven, Hird had been injected with Hexarelin by Dank up to 30 times. An Essendon statement “categorically denies a personal program of weekly or bi-weekly injections [involving Hird].” The truth, theoretically, lies somewhere in the middle.
It comes alongside suggestions players were, knowingly or not, subject to use of, and even testing for, AOD-9604, a drug currently unapproved for human use. There is the mention of numerous other substances – CJC-1295, GHRP-6, Hexarelin, Interleukin-6, for starters. The list isn’t short, and is likely why the investigation has almost lasted six months, and the report contains the inclusion of approximately 13,000 documents.
The adage goes: ‘No individual is bigger than the club.’ Sadly, it appears Hird now is, for the wrong reasons.
He has involved himself so intensely in a program and its investigation that seems as frightening as unethical, allegedly involving a series of drugs either, according to the WADA code, banned for use in and out of competition, or banned as a result of not yet being approved for human use. I can only question if a player truly knows substances such as these are entering their system if they have given full consent, and thus the level of respect to player welfare from a football department in that case.
It was also suggested that he had become submerged in work with Dank and, involved further down the line, South Yarra compounding chemist Nima Alavi and biochemist Shane Charter, and many more.
As Robinson said in his interview, he should have stood down when he had the chance. Even to save himself from the media poking and pushing trying to uncover every inch of the story in a saga that surely has to be taking an extreme toll on everybody involved, let alone a leading figure such as Hird. It had severe damage on Robinson’s well-being, and he hasn’t been at the club since the start of the year.
Hird is a great of the football club, make no mistake about it. Judging by a player response on Twitter after Robinson’s interview, with some of Essendon’s notables tweeting their public support, he is internally as much of a legend now as when he held a premiership cup aloft in 2000.
It’s justifiable. Hird grew support, he brought members and he cultivated a side left on shaky ground after the sacking of his predecessor Matthew Knights and his hiring, not to mention his playing career. Fans and players can only love and respect him for those.
But next to all that sits an asterisk.
Hird is the face of a club that, not unrealistically, could see premiership points stripped, draft picks taken away and severe financial ramifications, plus the ASADA findings of potential player bans for breaching the WADA code, and subsequent losses of highly valuable assets such as members and sponsorships, the latter similar to the aftermath of the Melbourne Storm’s salary cap breaches in the NRL.
That is a Doomsday scenario and then some, and the chances of all events coming together to create something so cataclysmic are incredibly low. Each singular aspect, however, perhaps not so much, and Hird will have headed a football department overseeing – and, apparently pioneering to an extent – those events and their respective punishments.
This does not change that James Hird was a generational player and leader, iconic amongst the game. But, unfortunately, that may not be the first thing we think of when we hear his name.
Players such as Ben Cousins and Brendan Fevola previously brought the game into disrepute. Perhaps they are different in that their controversies occurred during their playing days. But nonetheless their playing days are overshadowed to extents by their actions off the field, and it’s easy to forget just how superb they were on it, much like Hird.
The memories of their brilliant careers have faded. And while the outcome of the investigation remains pending, what has been alleged, what has been spoken and claimed, what has been revealed – and, most importantly, Essendon’s mealy-mouthed responses to these – does not paint a pretty picture. Not certainly for Hird.
As the investigation nears its conclusion, I can only hope the memory doesn’t become so distant. It’s not promising, but time will tell whether the investigation makes that warranted.