Essendon's internal review into its contentious supplements program has been completed, the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority investigation continues. With clarification from the World Anti-Doping Authority last week that the anti-obesity drug AOD-9604 – allegedly taken by some Bombers – is a banned substance, along with other substances believed to have been used, what penalties can the club expect?
Will players be suspended and for how long? Will the club lose premiership points? Could Essendon captain Jobe Watson lose his 2012 Brownlow Medal?
The determination of penalties will depend on ASADA's findings on the use of AOD-9604, Cerebrolysin and Melanotan. Cerebrolysin is an experimental "brain drug" which is being trialed for use in dementia and allegedly improves brain function. The perceived advantage in football would be that it may improve decision-making. Cerebrolysin is not approved for use in Australia.
Melanotan is a tanning agent freely available over the internet and popular with young women in the UK and Australia. It allegedly also has some anabolic properties. It is not approved for use in Australia.
Any player who has used one of these substances or other drugs not yet approved for use would be considered to have taken a banned substance.
It would appear then, that by their own admission, at least six Essendon players have used at least one of these unapproved and therefore banned substances.
What punishment is likely to be handed down to these, and potentially other, players?
The WADA code stipulates a standard punishment of two years' suspension. ASADA will recommend a two-year ban to the three-person tribunal convened by the AFL which will eventually hear the case.
However there are several clauses in the WADA Code that relate to reduction of the standard ban. The first is Section 10.5.1, No Fault or Negligence. This relates to suspension being waived in specific rare scenarios where an athlete can prove he or she was sabotaged by a competitor. It specifically states that it is not applicable in the following scenario, "the administration of a prohibited substance by the athlete's personal physician or trainer without disclosure to the athlete (athletes are responsible for their choice of medical personnel and for advising medical personnel that they cannot be given any prohibited substance)". So there is no chance of a zero suspension.
The next clause is 10.5.2 entitled No Significant Fault or Negligence. It states: "If an athlete or other person establishes in an individual case that he or she bears no significant fault or negligence, then the otherwise applicable period of ineligibility may be reduced, but the reduced period of ineligibility may not be less than one-half of the period of ineligibility otherwise applicable."
It is possible under this clause for players to argue that they have no significant fault and have their bans halved.
The third relevant clause is 10.5.3, Substantial Assistance in Discovering or Establishing Anti-Doping Rule Violations.
This clause states: "An anti-doping organisation . . . may . . . suspend a part of the period of ineligibility imposed in an individual case where the athlete or other person has provided substantial assistance to an anti-doping organisation, criminal authority or professional disciplinary body which results in the anti-doping organisation discovering or establishing an anti-doping rule violation by another person or which results in a criminal or disciplinary body discovering or establishing a criminal offence or the breach of professional rules by another person . . . No more than three-quarters of the otherwise applicable period of ineligibility may be suspended."
If the Essendon players were considered to be eligible for reductions under both clauses 10.5.2 and 10.5.3, then the best-case scenario is a six-month ban.
However, the recent case of Matthew Clark suggests ASADA is likely to take a hard line. Clark, a Frankston VFL player took an energy supplement, Hemo Rage, containing a banned substance on the advice of a teammate. He was unaware it contained a banned substance and should therefore have been eligible for a reduced ban. The VFL initially handed down a nine-month ban but ASADA challenged that penalty and he was eventually given the full two years.
Should the Essendon players finish up with reduced bans, Clark would have reason to feel aggrieved.
The timeframe is unclear, but it is likely that ASADA will conclude its investigations in about two months, then the tribunal will be convened to hear the case. It will be close to the end of the season before this is resolved and later if court action ensues.
Players would then be suspended immediately.
The WADA Code also imposes sanctions on teams with multiple players found guilty. Clause 11.2, Consequences for Team Sports, states that: "If more than two members of a team in a team sport are found to have committed an anti-doping rule violation during an event period, the ruling body of the event shall impose an appropriate sanction on the team (eg, loss of points, disqualification from a competition or event, or other sanction) in addition to any consequences imposed upon the individual athletes committing the anti-doping rule violation."
It is doubtful that Essendon would lose its 2013 premiership points, as team forfeiture would likely relate only to the period during which the players were taking the drugs, although one could argue that the players may have enjoyed long-term benefits. However, had Essendon won the 2012 premiership, it would be stripped of it, as NRL club Melbourne Storm was stripped of its 2007 and 2009 premierships as a result of salary cap breaches.
And if Essendon captain Watson turns out to be one of the players who has taken a banned substance, he will presumably have to forfeit his Brownlow Medal.
Peter Brukner is an Australian sports medicine physician, author and media commentator currently working with the Australian cricket team.