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Essendon supplements saga becomes AFL's Watergate

Watergate was a political scandal in which the initial focus of an investigation later became secondary to far broader ramifications. As more details about the Essendon supplements saga continue to trickle out, it’s becoming increasingly clear this is football’s version.

Lies, cover-ups, agendas, duplicity and, in terms of careers in the game, an increasing body count. Sound familiar? We haven’t had the movie yet, but surely that’s coming in time.

This saga hasn’t yet caused the downfall of a country’s leader, of course. Then again, the now-infamous “blackest day in sport” news conference of February last year was a premature and fairly transparent attempt by a federal government facing an electoral savaging to win back some favour.

And on that score the AFL is another party to this soap opera, lucky it doesn’t have to face re-endorsement from its own constituency.

Wednesday’s revelation that chief medical officer Peter Harcourt told a FIFA anti-doping conference last November that blood samples taken from Essendon players in 2012 were flown to Europe for advanced testing for banned substances underline further how poorly this saga has been handled by practically everyone involved.

Essendon’s culpability is the most obvious example. The Bombers failed to heed warnings delivered as early as 2011 about the dangers of a supplements program, indeed the reservations of their own medical staff and then-assistant coach Mark Thompson.

They ploughed on in cavalier fashion for another 12 months, abandoning the program when it became clear their players, far from receiving any benefits, were breaking down with soft-tissue injuries at an alarming rate.

It was spectacular arrogance and incompetence for which they were hit with the game’s most severe penalties, and in terms of reputation, perhaps a life sentence.

Suspended Essendon coach James Hird’s lawyers on Wednesday used Harcourt’s speech, which managed to escape public attention for eight months and may otherwise never have emerged, to support their claim that a joint Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority-AFL investigation was illegal.

It may or may not prove a match-winner in legal terms, though the shining of a glaring light on the most ill-advised sports science program imaginable again does the Bombers no favours in a moral sense or in the court of public opinion.

ASADA, meanwhile, has bumbled its way through the entire investigative process. It colluded with the AFL to arrive at potential minimum sanctions for players before a joint investigation had even begun, then welched on the deal only two weeks later after the NRL, also under microscope, caught wind of it.

It dragged its feet when the investigation did start and got its wires crossed with its parent body, the World Anti-Doping Agency, about the legality of AOD-9604.

Its new chief, Ben McDevitt, recently conducted a grand media tour in which he conceded he wasn’t sure about the burden of proof required to invoke player suspensions, then offered what amounted to a public bribe to Essendon’s players to accept guilt.

And the AFL? Well, Wednesday’s Federal Court revelations are another example of why its repeated hand-wringing about player welfare and health and safety concerns ring more than a little hollow.

It was as early as August 2011 that Essendon met with AFL integrity boss Brett Clothier and an ASADA representative to talk about a supplements program it was considering.

The AFL had become sufficiently concerned by 2012 that its advice had been ignored, and by persistent rumours and misgivings of other clubs about what Essendon was doing, to send blood specimens to Cologne in Germany, at the time one of only two laboratories in the world capable of testing for peptides.

According to Harcourt, “nothing came” out of those tests. What he actually meant was no positive results were recorded. But he also spoke of having to monitor players for the next five to 10 years for potential hormonal issues or cancers as a result of “this crazy activity that individuals allowed to occur at the club”.

That’s pretty dramatic stuff, obviously of grave concern to the keepers of our code. So if the AFL’s fears were that transparent, why did it wait a full year to apply any penalties to Essendon for its shocking administration and disregard for its own players’ welfare? Or even continue to counsel and keep tabs on the club and the players Harcourt said it was so worried about?

Former AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou had already expressed publicly his concerns about the creeping influence of sports science in the game, but denied repeatedly that he knew specific details about the club or clubs involved prior to Essendon’s “self-reporting” in February last year.

Are we supposed to swallow the possibility that the AFL’s chief medical officer was as worried by what was going on as his conference speech indicated, yet somehow failed to alert his boss to those concerns?

Pretty hard to believe. As is this mantra uttered by AFL Commission chairman Mike Fitzpatrick when finally announcing sanctions against Essendon in late August last year: “Two of our principles are absolute non-negotiables – the health and safety of the players and the overall integrity of the AFL competition.”

Given the delays between the initial warning to Essendon, the sending of blood samples overseas and Wednesday’s revelation of the latter, you’d swear there was a third principle involved: making sure nobody finds out about this stuff.

A layman’s reading of the timeline involved would go like this: the AFL told Essendon to “watch out” then closed its eyes and stuck its fingers in its ears for 12 months. Then it got the all-clear on those peptide tests and hoped it would all go away again. Then it prayed for another year until it was effectively sprung on Wednesday that some big-noting on the other side of the world wouldn’t make it back to these shores.

It has, and now there is another host of questions to be answered. And hopefully now, in the AFL’s own Watergate, comes the realisation by the league and the other parties in this saga that cover-ups almost always come a cropper eventually.

161 comments

  • So the AFL is neck deep in this and ASADA had tests done and found nothing? This makes this whole fiasco worse for those two bodies but hardly for Essendon. Essendon's denials it seems have much more meat on those bones than we have been led to believe by ASADA and the AFL. Given their collective knowledge and the legal wranglings I think that Essendon can't get more egg on its face but AFL and ASADA can and likely will. The trial coming up will be very interesting indeed.

    Commenter
    the Truth
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    July 03, 2014, 3:05PM
    • rohan - you have fallen for the Essendon (the Lab Rats) deflection campaign once again. If the AFL's culpability in this thing is, say the size of a goal post, Essendon's is the size of Mount Everist.

      Please take of your Lab rat tainted goggles for a moment and replace Essendon Footballers with Chinese Swimmers. Your conclusion should then be clear.

      Commenter
      Gaz
      Location
      Yarrawonga
      Date and time
      July 03, 2014, 3:42PM
    • The biggest liars here are Essendon and even their players.

      Last year they were saying they didn't know what they took, so how can they now turn around and guarantee there was nothing illegal? They can't.

      ASADA's mistake was to make the investigation and many of it's details public. They absolutely should have remained confidential until after the investigation was complete and charges laid in the same way a normal police investigation works. That is really at the heart of what has compromised this investigation.

      Essendon's argument to have the case thrown out is based on a legal technicality. This will all come down to the strength of the circumstantial evidence ASADA has. It is pretty compelling stuff some of it, but at the same time it is only circumstantial.

      Commenter
      Jez
      Location
      Melb
      Date and time
      July 03, 2014, 4:11PM
    • Spot on gaz. It's absolutely disgusting the depths to which Essendon's shills will dig in a vain attempt to save a club on the wrong side of history. Stuff the sport, stuff the truth, stuff integrity, stuff the players, stuff the other clubs. Spin spin spin it all away. Save Hird at all costs. What a bunch of ******* *****.

      Commenter
      Nick
      Date and time
      July 03, 2014, 4:16PM
    • After two years of this nonsense all ASADA have is the rather ludicrous claim that 34 players received a course of TB-4, a claim which is contradicted by the only evidence they have - circumstantial evidence that a small quantity (enough for one or two players) of TB-4 was sourced by Dank. Even if he did source TB-4 (the evidence being extraordinarily flimsy and denied by all parties) the amount in question would not have been anywhere near sufficient to support the claims.

      I have always maintained that once the evidence was on the table it would be clear that no PEDs were administered. ASADA still refuse to disclose their evidence to the players - let's hope the Federal court takes these guys to task. The investigation has been a farce.

      As for the Bombers, we've never been more united. With 60k members, the players all signing up in droves (remember the "player exodus"???) and Hirdy returning next month it's a great time to be a Bomber fan. Our weakness this year has been our forward line and it feels like Carlisle/Daniher/Ambrose are starting to click.

      Commenter
      Laki
      Location
      Windy Hill
      Date and time
      July 03, 2014, 4:35PM
    • Laki
      Location
      Windy Hill
      Date and time
      July 03, 2014, 4:35PM

      Do you really believe there were no records kept of who was injected with what,

      Commenter
      The Shredder
      Date and time
      July 03, 2014, 4:51PM
    • Shredder, there were records kept. Copies of the spreadsheet have even appeared in The Age.

      Commenter
      Laki
      Location
      Windy Hill
      Date and time
      July 03, 2014, 6:02PM
    • Jez, EFC cannot prove what they did or didnt take, because they are not sure. That is why they have already been punished. Big time.
      It is up to ASADA to prove what they did take, by clear evidence, not maybe or probably, but definitely, so the players can be punished!!!

      Commenter
      bombercos
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 03, 2014, 6:05PM
    • Jez - who has to prove what? ASADA sent samples overseas and go no positives - they need a little more than suspicion as it isn't a police state yet no matter how much some people want it to be.

      Commenter
      the Truth
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 03, 2014, 6:49PM
    • Totally agree Laki.

      All these cover ups and lies from the AFL make it perfectly ok that Essendon injected young men under their duty of care with unknown substances with unknown side effects or long term effects. If any of the players have a serious issue later in life due to the "experimental" culture at the club it will totally be the AFLs fault because well... I mean they held a joint investigation... and they.. they shouldn't do that. Yeah. I'm glad it makes it ok.

      Commenter
      MDF
      Location
      Reality
      Date and time
      July 03, 2014, 7:18PM

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