So, after three tortuous years, who won and who lost? Right now, it is a tremendously lopsided ledger.
The Essendon players lost. They endured three years of playing under a cloud. Now they will live through a fourth of not playing altogether, a sportsman's anathema. Some never will play again. They have also lost a degree of their reputations. In the Court of Arbitration for Sport judgment, they were found to have tried to cover their tracks, which somewhat mutes the defence that they were misled lambs. "You list the things you think you need to list," former ruckman David Hille evidently told the hearing. The stigma will not go away. And Jobe Watson may yet lose his Brownlow Medal.
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Essendon fans lost, cruelly. They are the only true innocents. But so did fans of other clubs, who will have their fingers crossed about their own clubs, and are less sanguine about the game generally. Schadenfreude has no place in this landscape.
Essendon's hierarchy lost. They were blithe in leading the club into this mess, and inept, to say the least, in trying to get out of it. Essendon, the club, lost. It will take years to recover, even longer. The very name Essendon will stand for something different henceforth than it did three years ago.
Port Adelaide lost. With Paddy Ryder and Angus Monfries, they would have been among the premiership favourites this season. No longer. The Western Bulldogs lost.
Stephen Dank lost. He could have solved this case quickly and with a quantum less of pain by testifying, to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority and to the AFL tribunal. He did not. He was easily cast as a villain anyway; now his villainy is forever enshrined.
James Hird lost, enormously. Call it blind self-belief, call it wilful obstinacy, this whole awful saga happened under his auspices. Eras at football clubs are defined by coaches. This judgment and its consequences becomes Hird's legacy. Like the club he loved and that loved him (too well?), his name today stands for something unrecognisably different from his glorious playing days. "Miscarriage of justice," Hird said on Tuesday. He has become the man for whom justice never carries. But forget about his money. Though it fascinates people, it is a side issue.
The AFL lost, badly. They tried to control, even manipulate, the outcome of a drugs-in-sport case. They tried to deal with it in-house, thinking that house impregnable. They were too gung-ho. Once the case escaped their jurisdiction, they were shown up as a small fish in a big pond. They should have let matters take their course.
Now, there are rumblings about a withdrawal from WADA. These must be resisted, unless the AFL wants to look like a small fish in a big pond taking its bat and ball and going home. Apart from anything else, that would be an offence against metaphors. A go-it-alone AFL could get by without the money it would lose in government grants, but that would only reinforce its name as Australia's most arrogant sporting body. It would be better advised to work harder to make sure there are no more Essendons.
The anti-doping code lost, theoretically. Nothing in the CAS ruling shakes this column's view that the code is poorly adapted to team sport. It takes for granted an autonomy that team players mostly do not have, for instance, in assuming that the doctor is employed by the athlete and answerable to him. In individual sports, this is true. In team sports, it is not. The code was also shown to be far too cumbersome in its operation.
So who won? Only WADA did, but emphatically so. It was vindicated by the strength of the CAS finding: two years, backdated, but without mitigation (a tougher verdict even than the one sought by ASADA in the first instance). It was vindicated in its pursuit of a case that looked run and done last November. It was vindicated in its latter-day policy of prosecuting doping offences by sleuth-like investigation and deduction, rather than relying wholly on testing. Detective work landed Floyd Landis, and Marion Jones, and Lance Armstrong, and now Essendon. Testing landed Ben Johnson nearly 30 years ago and a few tiddlers since.
WADA is on top of the game it was picked to play. To some, it might look like a bully, bewigged, distant and dictatorial. But having just brought to heel Russia and the International Association of Athletics Federations, it was hardly going to flinch when dealing with one club in a domestic competition in an isolated sport. Besides, apart from asking who won and who lost, the question today is what was achieved by this grim verdict.
If the answer is another grinding step towards a sporting world in which no one is tempted anywhere near grey areas, shady lines and short cuts, and ultimately a sporting world free of the taint of drugs – however utopian that may seem – then even as all swallow their bitter pills, the ledger might be more balanced than it looks on first inspection.