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Drug shambles could work in players' favour

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Some see the Essendon story as a conspiracy, in the Watergate vein. The departed chairman of the club, David Evans, recognised the Shakespearean elements when he deemed it "a tragedy".

But where there might have been elements of secrecy and duplicity at Essendon in 2011-12, much what emerges from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority report into the supplements disaster is a disorganised mess in which there was uncertainty about who was given what substance.

Remarkably, it is this sheer lack of oversight - the breakdown in protocols that were meant to be followed by officials - that looks set to save the players from the worst, namely lengthy suspensions for taking World Anti-Doping Agency-banned substances.

That worst could still happen, but it does not appear likely at this stage. ASADA still wishes to interview sports scientist Stephen Dank, the central figure in the scandal, as a result of its new powers (persons of interest who refuse to be interviewed can be fined up to $5100 a day, according to the new legislation, which has just taken effect).

The shambolic nature of the program threw the players into the fire, but it also means they should not get burnt.

The failure to keep proper records - and to adequately verify what, if anything, was actually banned - makes it harder for ASADA to issue infraction notices against individual players.


This obviously does not excuse the club - hence the long-speculated likelihood that the club will face sanctions from the AFL instead of the players being penalised by ASADA.

It is fair to question the extent to which these lack of specifics - eg, the naming of "Thymosin" on a form, rather than a more specific description of "Thymosin beta 4" (banned) or "Thymosin Alpha" (not banned) - was accidental. It is a question that Dank has not had to answer.

From what we hear, the report makes a strong case that banned substances were a) at the club, and b) administered. Hence, the suggestion that the club is off the hook if the players aren't suspended is simply not accurate.

The report paints Dank in a highly unflattering light, with others - including coach James Hird - seen as failing to keep track of a program that did indeed go rogue.

Fairfax Media believes that a reading of the report elicits sympathy for the players, whose evidence is understood to have been pretty candid and did not give the impression they were trying to conceal any practices or protect themselves.

No fewer than 11 players, for instance, stated their belief that they were told they were taking Thymosin, but they did not have any further knowledge of whether it was the banned variety or the innocuous one.

The report suggests there is strong circumstantial evidence that the banned version was administered.

But it cannot say to whom it was given, with any certainty. And for that shambles, the players - and ultimately the club and the AFL - must be thankful.