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Essendon CAS verdict: Decision gives cause for comfort

The AFL's long-cherished dream of global citizenry is at last a reality. Alas for the Australian game, its first serious appearance on the world stage hasn't occurred in the desired manner.

Modern sport's international rules have bitten hard and painfully. Unlike its regular domestic crises, usually flicked away like some pesky fly, this time the AFL found itself at the mercy of two remote bodies with little interest in administrative inconvenience or domestic status. The World Anti-Doping Agency and Court of Arbitration for Sport have acted without fear or favour, delivering a savage blow.

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The dramatic news of last Tuesday morning has prompted predictable criticism of WADA and CAS. Some argue the global code is simply inappropriate to team sport, while the less rational suggest the two bodies have been guilty of bloody-mindedness.

On the other side of the argument are those concerned with the health and credibility of world sport who insist a totally independent protocol is vital. It's worth pointing out for the sake of those who believe these bodies are on a collective witch-hunt that CAS outcomes aren't always anti-athlete.

In 2009, sport's global court supported the claim of French tennis player Richard Gasquet that he had ingested cocaine via a lingering, late night kiss. CAS was subjected to ridicule as a result.

The notion of sports administrations being trusted to self-police on doping has been decried in recent days by Australia's anti-doping chief, Ben McDevitt.


His view resonates for many at this time when various major sports' bodies are being revealed as having long acted as laws unto themselves. As followers of international athletics are learning daily, corruption can flourish at many levels. In the case of their sport it's not just about rogue athletes; many of that group have been enabled by rotten and compliant administrators.

The latter, it goes without saying, must be removed and replaced with men and women of courage and integrity. Australian sport can't be assumed to be immune from the disease. It's an important point at this time when the AFL Players Association is blaming the Essendon outcome on the global protocol and instinctively pushing for withdrawal from WADA.

Shrill and misguided though this response may be, combine it with the AFL's frequently expressed frustration over the protracted nature of this case and it's not hard to imagine a groundswell developing. For it's a matter of fact that if the case had started with an AFL investigation and ended with its Anti-Doping Tribunal hearing, Essendon would have a full list this year. But how would the AFL be seen by the broader sporting community? And how much confidence would those sports' lovers who genuinely believe only a totally independent process safeguards credibility be able to place in such a system?

Anti-doping organisations simply can't afford to have sympathy for anything other than the search for clean sport. Elusive as that dream may be, WADA and its various national agencies at least deliver confidence to elite sportspeople, and those others who invest their faith in sport, that the drive to make it clean is serious.

Which is what makes last Tuesday's outcome on Essendon – painful though it may be for every person who supports the Bombers in any way – one to be seen in a positive light. When Ben Johnson was caught in Seoul at the 1988 Olympics, it was actually a moment to rejoice. Likewise the more recent capture of Lance Armstrong.

While it's unlikely any of Essendon's footballers were as wilful of mind as that infamous pair, there is still cause for comfort in what has happened. The global anti-doping community has intervened in Australian domestic sport in such a way as to put all its athletes on notice and to give confidence to those who want to place their trust in sport. It's important to know the detectives are prepared to fight hard where they feel there's a case. It's also reassuring that our various domestic competitions aren't somehow quarantined from world standards.

Sadly, there is as much cause for lack of confidence in modern sport as there is in the global economy. While some administrators have been found to be flagrantly on the take, others – less culpable but still guilty of failing sport – have emerged as too concerned with brand protection.

Claims the AFL sought a pragmatic early solution to the Essendon drama in the first half of 2013 were denied by CEO Gillon McLachlan on Tuesday night's AFL 360. Yet Aurora Andruska, the CEO of the Australian Anti-Doping Authority through the first 15 months of the saga, is on record as saying: "Their [the AFL's] objectives and ASADA's objectives are almost at odds with each other's. They are about protecting their business, protecting their brand." Andruska, it should be pointed out, was specifically lauded by Justice John Middleton of the Federal Court, in September 2014, as a "truthful witness".

It doesn't have to be like this. Rendering to football what is football's and to anti-doping what is anti- doping's might be the great lesson for the AFL from this lengthy parable.