Date: August 28 2013
Mike Fitzpatrick took 10 minutes to read a statement the likes of which the game has never heard, and then he reached the bottom line. The judgment brought down by the AFL Commission ''is a powerful and enduring affirmation that no single club or individual is above our great game''.
There are few bigger clubs than Essendon, nor individuals who cast a greater shadow than James Hird. The commission chairman, with his chief executive Andrew Demetriou beside him, made it clear their greatest gift to football is the lesson their wrongdoing leaves the game, from top to bottom, now and forever.
''This reminds everyone that young men who want to play our game, when they go to a football club, they will get the best care,'' Demetriou said. As much as Hird had protested and protracted what Demetriou repeatedly called a ''sorry saga'', he stood before the commission and apologised for failing to provide that for the young men under his charge.
In speaking of the ''fundamental principles that guide our code'', Fitzpatrick put up in lights the point that has often been ignored in this most hysterical of seasons. Two of those principles are non-negotiable - the health and safety of the players, and the overall integrity of the competition - and Essendon flew in the face of both.
It took nine hours of thrashing out on Tuesday and 14 the day before to get there, but Demetriou declared the matter done. Doctor Bruce Reid's attempts to clear his name will continue, but whatever outcome he achieves will pale alongside what Demetriou called ''the most significant sanction in AFL history''.
Essendon chairman Paul Little described it as an ''incredibly tough time'' for his club's members and supporters, to whom he apologised. Yet he declared it a positive day from which the club and the game must move forward. ''We've let down a lot of people, [and] are genuinely sorry.''
Hird had apologised too, addressing the commission in a manner Demetriou described as ''genuinely remorseful''. The frost between the champion former player - and for now former coach - and its executive may never fully thaw, but this was at least friendlier than Hird threatening Supreme Court action and Little saying he'd lost faith in the AFL's ability to deal with the matter.
Little maintained that the club's first priority had been with the welfare of the players, yet this was after the fact - if such a duty of care had been displayed throughout 2012, this historic media conference would not have been required. He professed to being ''full of admiration'' for their resilience.
For their adherence to gravely misguided instruction, Essendon's devastated footballers will on Saturday night be forced to play a game against Richmond so farcical it had Fitzpatrick shaking his head. ''It's unavoidable,'' the chairman muttered. Just as this whole sorry affair should have been.
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