AFL

On drugs, AFL's small world has to embrace the bigger issue

 Although its final outcome is yet to be delivered, the Essendon supplements affair has surely clarified one important matter for footballers and fans alike. It is that sports people are ultimately responsible for what goes into their bodies. That is why the case against Essendon players is currently before a Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Doctors, coaches, sports scientists, and others might be instrumental in doping cases, but at the end of the day the athlete is personally responsible for competing "clean". It doesn't matter that he/she might play within a team and feel group pressure — or pressure applied from above — to go with the flow.

The Essendon supplements affair has surely clarified one important matter for footballers and fans alike.
The Essendon supplements affair has surely clarified one important matter for footballers and fans alike.  Photo: Pat Scala

When you clear your senses of the white noise and red herrings that have been part of the endless Essendon discussion, this is self-evident. And if the three-year water torture of the case produces a constructive outcome, it will be that no group of footballers will ever again comply with an inappropriate regime of preparation under the fallacious justification of footy club culture.

The danger is now understood and a line has been drawn in the sand. For why should Australian footballers not be subject to the same standard of scrutiny as members of any other group from any other country in which systemic doping is suspected of having been implemented?

Those national representatives, too, have their cultures. If they turned up illegally enhanced at an Olympic Games — knowingly or not — and were caught, we wouldn't be inclined to exonerate them on the grounds that they were trapped within a culture and felt they had to toe the line.

Which makes the comments of Lindsay Tanner, on taking over as president of Essendon, disappointing. Tanner defended Jobe Watson's right to retain the 2012 Brownlow Medal, even if found guilty by the CAS, on the basis that there was no player culpability in the affair. It was purely the club's fault, not the players', according to the new president.

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This suggests an ignorance of the global rules under which responsible sporting competitions must now function. Despite his record of good sense as a politician, Tanner becomes the second consecutive Essendon president to stumble in this terrain. His predecessor, Paul Little, even spoke brazenly at one stage of seeking to enlist the federal sports minister as a "circuit breaker" in the Essendon inquiry. Whatever it takes.

Little came from business, Tanner from politics. If you look through the ranks of their counterparts at other AFL clubs, you find chairmen and women from backgrounds in business, finance, law, and the media. Only Geelong's Colin Carter, who was a long-time member of the AFL Commission, came to his club role as an experienced senior sports administrator.

This collection of men and one woman is eminently well qualified to chair the boards of corporate entities like AFL clubs, it's just that they fall short in one particular area. And that area is the fundamental one of sport itself. Thus, they can be exposed as lacking understanding of their responsibility in matters of sporting process, particularly where potential for disadvantage to their club exists.

When it comes to an issue as serious as doping, senior club administrators have to realise there is a team far more worthy even than one's own. That team is sport itself and it is the only one to barrack for. So if one's players are subject to investigation, the beanie must come off and process be allowed to play out without the investigator being vilified or the messenger being shot. In the Essendon case, too many have failed to understand this.

That doesn't mean abandoning hope it will end OK; as yet it might for Essendon. But an insistence on process is not something for invective to be heaped upon, nor for the generation of paranoia. Remember, many people vilified those who pursued Lance Armstrong. Some, as cancer sufferers, felt a powerful emotional attachment. But the pursuit had to be undertaken.

If one had confidence the AFL had learnt from its own failure of sporting management on the Essendon issue, it would be salutary to suggest it organise education sessions for its club leaders. After all, a well-developed sense of understanding on all aspects of sports doping is absolutely fundamental to the role of chairing a modern sports administration.

This is not to be patronising. Every senior administrator at every AFL club should, as a matter of course, be well educated in this area. Pretty obviously, too many aren't. Indeed, the AFL's own performance brings no comfort whatsoever. Apart from never having taken the issue seriously enough in earlier times, it showed no recognition of the integrity of process required in the Essendon case. Its credibility will not be easily restored.

Perhaps what it can best do now is seek to clean the slate by first acknowledging its own failings. Then it should commit to ensuring all who administer within its total framework are better informed in the future than it, itself, was three years ago.

Then, at last, football might present a mature face to the sporting world on one of the great issues of the day.