Illustration: Michael Mucci
This was to have been a column about the glory days of the Essendon and Melbourne football clubs. It was going to reflect on the immediate post-war success of the Bombers, the arrival of John Coleman at Windy Hill in 1949, and the rise of Melbourne in the second half of the 1950s.
It was going to raise the question as to whether the Demons’ mighty era – the greatest in the competition’s history – would have occurred had Coleman not injured his knee in 1954 and been forced to retire at the age of 25.
Would Essendon, regenerated by the arrival of a succession of young stars – and with Coleman still a dominant force in front of goal – have become an even greater team than Norm Smith’s Melbourne? Might the two clubs have produced the greatest rivalry in the game’s history? As I say, this was to have been the theme.
But things have changed. And now it’s hard to imagine a less joyous backdrop for a football match than that for the Sunday night game between Essendon and Melbourne at the MCG.
The show-cause notices now served on 34 current and former AFL players by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority are the ultimate reality check. If it’s not the darkest day in Australian sport, it is in Australian Rules. The moment of reckoning for many at Essendon has come.
Of course the Bombers, and their president, are within their rights to seek legal redress. But Paul Little and his board, if they had genuine care for sport beyond their football club, would seriously consider their action within a fuller context.
If the club is successful in the Federal Court, averting disaster on a technicality bearing no relationship to the case at issue, it will achieve an outcome repugnant to most. Its triumph will be Australian sport’s shame. The nation’s reputation for a commitment to clean sport will be tarnished.
This would be the type of deflection of a doping case that Australian sports lovers have come to detest. It would rightly leave all bar blinkered partisans feeling that, when push comes to shove, our sporting standards are no better than those of the international fixers we read about in the press.
If a moral justification exists for Essendon’s resort to the courts perhaps it is that the club, from the gymnasium to the board room, failed its players. As the consequences of this have become clearer, the need to exhaust every method in the players’ defence may have taken root. And one can feel some sympathy with such a view.
It fails in substance, though, because world sport places the onus in these matters on athletes. And that is the bitter lesson for football in the whole affair. The footballers involved, and those who administer their clubs, must understand and accept this.
Sports people are responsible for what is in their bodies when they compete. If one player can say no to a program because he doesn’t like injections, it is nonsense to suggest others, for higher reasons, couldn’t say the same. As for them being kids, whatever happened to leadership groups?
Football has finally learnt a bitter lesson and the failure occurred at many levels.
From those facing judgment, to the powers-that-used-to-be and still are at Essendon, to the very top of the AFL, heads should be hung. Professionally paid administrators have not responded to the demands of the professional sporting era. One way or another, the game will pay a heavy price.
Going back to the beginning, football didn’t have a sufficiently full appreciation of the potential for the doping envelope to be pushed. I write this as one who concluded a column on these pages four years ago with the words: “on the issue of performance enhancing drugs, football’s senior administration has for a long time been asleep at the wheel.”
This was written in relation to the AFL’s lack of commitment to (performance enhancing) drug testing in state leagues while resources were being poured into a testing program for illicit drugs. Regardless of whether the latter program is justifiable, a sports administration’s first, second, and third priority should be to safeguard the integrity of its competitions.
In earlier times, former AFL boss, Ross Oakley, resisted the notion of appearing before a Senate inquiry into doping in Australian sport. In later years I suspect our football code hasn’t been above the attitude, so prevalent the world over, of preferring not to know of inconvenient truths.
There is no excuse. With 18 warring tribes out there, all involved – as former Essendon president David Evans once famously said – in an arms race, it was predictable that advantage would be sought. And we know from the experience of other sports where that can lead. Football had the advantage of 20-20 hindsight.
Finally, there is one aspect of the sorry saga from which Australian sport – and life – can take heart. ASADA has revealed itself as one institution that won’t be diverted from the important job at hand. In times when so many outcomes appear to be shaped by convenience, this is reassuring to know.