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Verbal pushing and shoving most unbecoming

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Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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Full statement: Bombers blast AFL

"I have lost total confidence in the AFL executive," says Bombers chairman Paul Little, accusing them of seeking to "score media headlines and intimidate us".

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Clause 107 of the AFL's charge sheet describes Steve Dank's office at Essendon as ''not secure, disorganised and (lacking) appropriate standards of organisation, cleanliness and hygiene''. Plainly, Essendon and the AFL should adjourn there. This has become the dirtiest and most sordid club-versus-competition fight in memory.

Why was Essendon anywhere near that line in the first place, when on the other side of it lay the ruin of a proud club's reputation but, more the point, unknown risk for the health of the young men who now represent it? 

On Wednesday, it came to verbal pushing and shoving. The AFL released particulars of the ''conduct unbecoming'' charge against Essendon and James Hird and Paul Little hit back with charges of their own, of ambush, of trial by media, of flouting due process, of intimidation, very nearly of incompetence.

Essendon's language was emotive and damning, its compass sweeping. The AFL's words were legal, intricate and exhaustive. If one word summed up the exchange, it was ''belligerent'', used by Little - belligerently - to describe the AFL.

Caught by surprise, Essendon flailed at a straw man. Little said the allegation that Essendon had administered prohibitive substances to players was ''outrageous''. But the AFL charge is not that the Bombers administered banned drugs, but that in their haste to set up a supplements program, they were so sloppy that they could not guarantee that players did not take performance-enhancing drugs.

No player has been indicted. But ASADA's investigation continues. Remember, if a charge against a player is laid, the standard of proof under the code is not ''beyond reasonable doubt'', but ''the comfortable satisfaction of the hearing panel, bearing in mind the seriousness of the allegation which is made''. It is how they got Lance Armstrong in the end.

But, really, it is an absurdity that this will come down to splitting legal hairs, to a forensic search by all parties involved for evidence of how close to the line Essendon trod, and whether Essendon in its excitable eagerness tripped over it, and to a negotiation between club and competition about a penalty that is acceptable to all for at least scuffing that line.

Everyone needs to step back to the vantage point occupied on Wednesday only by players' association chief Matt Finnis and ask: Why was Essendon anywhere near that line in the first place, when on the other side of it lay the ruin of a proud club's reputation but, more the point, unknown risk for the health of the young men who now represent it?

Why were these fit footballers with skinfolds as slight as tissue paper being assessed for an inefficacious anti-obesity drug? Why were they put under a regime that might have meant, according to the charge sheet, thousands of injections and/or pills every year, possibly including one type the compounding chemist said was causing him problems because it was ''not dissolving very well''? Why were medical staff marginalised?

It is not enough to say that every club in every sport is constantly on the lookout for a development that will give it an edge over its competitors, and yet it is the only answer that Essendon can give. The most telling recent revelation in the saga, corroborated by the charge sheet, was that the machiavellian Dank - falsely - told Essendon in 2011 that Collingwood was going down this path. Nothing was more calculated to galvanise Hird and Essendon than an appeal to competitive instinct.

On this, only Finnis has been consistent and vigilant. In April, as details of the Essendon saga began to emerge, he said he feared the football industry was looking only at the strict letter of the WADA law and making legal rather than moral assessments about drugs.

On Wednesday he was even more concerned. Having read both the ASADA report and the charge sheet, he said he felt only ''ambiguity'' about the messages they contained for Essendon's players and their families. ''It is shocking to see that the concerns of health professionals were ignored by a club that seemed intent on pushing the boundaries regardless of the potential impact on players,'' Finnis said.

''It would appear to me that if indeed all players have escaped negative health effects, it will be attributable more to good luck than any prudent management. My overwhelming reaction to this is simple: This must never happen again.''

4 comments

  • James Hird; step down from the club. Yes you are entitled to a defense and for that to be heard by an independent body. You said at the outset you take full responsibility yet you continue to accept none. Your stance is ripping your beloved club apart at the seams. You are not the club. You are not bigger than the club. You are part of the club. You are destroying your legacy and the legacy of your club. No one cares who you were; it's the man you are today that counts, and is what you will be remembered for. Where is your concern for your players and making it a priority to back check what they were injected with and ensuring they are ok? All you care about is yourself. You don't care how many scalps you take on the way to protecting your own. If you had taken a concerned stance I am sure you would have better protected your legacy. Even if you were to found not guilty it doesn't matter - no one is ever going to think you've done nothing wrong. At the very least you breached the fair work act in failing to provide a safe place of work, and for that alone you need to be punished and step down. As a member of a family whose loyalties are split between Essendon and Carlton (me being of the Carlton sort), a part of me is thrilled you, the golden child has screwed up so royally. But the other part of me is just sad. The game is never greater than with Essendon, Carlton and Collingwood and full strength......go the Bombers, go the Pies, and comon you non mighty but dearly beloved Blues. Let's get back to the game.

    Commenter
    funnykangaroo
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    August 22, 2013, 11:11AM
    • Greg, superb summary to the heart of the matter. As the father of a young footballer who has harboured interests in nominating for the draft over a number of years I and my son are now far less trustful of the AFL or Clubs involved. From no-doze & stillnox to this horrid affair, the AFL's brand has indeed been tarnished & quite frankly the charges deserve full weight & more.

      Commenter
      Oscar Jones
      Location
      Southbank
      Date and time
      August 22, 2013, 11:11AM
      • Here here. Some great writing from Fairfax here. Everyone has held their line and spoken to the facts, not emotions. Rohan Connelly still struggling to come to terms with the false claim about ASADA's comments on AOD, Well done to The Age on the coverage all year, especially Caro and Greg

        Commenter
        Mr Pound Town
        Date and time
        August 22, 2013, 12:22PM
    • Excellent article. James Hird and Essendon FC, please take some responsibility for the moral failure that occurred at your football club. It's disgusting to think of the volume and type of these injections.

      Commenter
      Sally
      Location
      Northcote
      Date and time
      August 22, 2013, 12:44PM
      Comments are now closed

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      Full statement: Bombers blast AFL (Thumbnail) Full statement: Bombers blast AFL

      "I have lost total confidence in the AFL executive," says Bombers chairman Paul Little, accusing them of seeking to "score media headlines and intimidate us".

      Blind pride drove coach's denial and bodies piled up

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