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Karalee Katsambanis: Essendon's punishment is not enough

The only real way Australian football can move forward and gain respect is if those within the AFL have the guts to do the job they should have done years ago.

There is no easy way to say this but for maximum effect, the Essendon Football Club needs to be suspended for the 2016 season at the very least, and potentially even disbanded.

'I find it amazing that for four years there has been no apology from James Hird.'
'I find it amazing that for four years there has been no apology from James Hird.' Photo: Getty Images

If it were West Coast or Fremantle, or any other club which had done what the Bombers did, my view would be exactly the same.

In reality, apart from some reputational fallout during the past three years, seriously, how has Essendon really suffered?

For the last four years, their players were allowed to remain in the competition almost as if nothing had happened. They continued to play games and even played finals just 16 months ago.

Since the day in February 2013 when allegations of impropriety first surfaced they have been, and continue to be, the complete elephant in the room.

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You can't call something the blackest day in Australian sport and allow a club to simply keep on playing for another six months to the finals before "punishing them" by demoting them to a ridiculous 9th spot.

Even that suspension or demotion was in itself an alarm bell and some tacit admission by the AFL that deep down they knew something was wrong.

But then Essendon was allowed to play finals again in 2014.

In the past week, the predictable "shock, devastation, disbelief" and other similar spin words from the Essendon Football Club should by now have been making many Australians cringe.

The club surely cannot still be in denial over what it has done? But I guess they subscribe to the old saying that "if you tell someone a lie long enough, they will eventually believe it."

If I read one more time that "players are now exploring legal options" after the Court of Arbitration for Sport found 34 past and present Essendon players guilty of doping offences, I think I will scream.

The very fact that excuses are still being made by a club that should instead be hanging its head in shame is awful.

Essendon Captain Jobe Watson and vice captain Dyson Heppell are among those banned for this year's season along with ten others still at Essendon and five players who have moved to other clubs within the AFL system.

The very fact that excuses are still being made by a club that should instead be hanging its head in shame is awful.

Sadly, yes, I am in the camp that believes Jobe Watson does indeed need to be stripped of his Brownlow Medal when the Commission meets next month. It will always be tainted.

The fact is the champion midfielder claimed the AFL's highest individual honour in 2012, the year in which Essendon ran their injecting and supplements program under Stephen Dank.

One of the substances alleged to have been administered to players, including Watson, during that season is the banned peptide thymosin beta-4.

Sometimes in life you unfortunately get caught up in things unwittingly but you still have to pay the price to level the field for others in the future.

I also do not believe that the Brownlow Medal should be awarded retrospectively to Hawthorn's Sam Mitchell and Richmond's Trent Cotchin who both finished equal second.

When the National Rugby League stripped Melbourne Storm of their 2007 and 2009 premierships following the salary cap scandal and fined them $1.6 million, neither losing grand finalists (Manly or Parramatta) assumed those titles.

An asterisk was inserted in the result tables for those two years.

That asterisk remains as a reminder of wrong doing, and when future generations ask why, they will be reminded of the wrongdoing and the subsequent harsh penalty. This should also be the case with the 2012 Brownlow.

Predictably, Essendon continues to be indulged by many media sycophantic and sports journalists who seem to act as barrackers for the club rather than objective analysts. This is regrettable but sadly is no surprise.

A Melbourne newspaper's weekend glamour fashion shoot for nine wives and girlfriends of the players involved in the saga putting yet another spin on the Essendon story.

Whether we like it or not, we now live in a world that when any serious allegation is made in almost every other industry in Australia, the accused party stands down until their name is cleared.

I find it amazing that for four years there has been no apology from James Hird. Four years of denial, of blatant God-like behavior from a man who was head coach in an era which has destroyed his beloved club's reputation.

Hird now says that he would have demanded an explanation from his coach if he had been exposed to similar circumstances as a player.

He is a father of four. He has three sons. Every player who was injected during Essendon's murky injection program was someone else's son. I wonder how he would have felt if it was his sons who were being injected with still-unknown substances.

At the height of the saga, Essendon packed him and his family off for four months in France to complete a fully paid-for MBA during his 12 month "suspension" on full pay.

After his paid sabbatical, Hird returned to Australia with renewed vigor to take on the AFL rather than taking that "full responsibility" he previously claimed he would take.

While Essendon accepted the court ruling that found the initial joint AFL-ASADA investigation was conducted legally, Hird decided to appeal to the Federal court and lost.

To an outsider like me, this act seemed to be less about caring for the well-being of his players and more to do with caring about the 'James Hird brand'.

'The brand' has been fighting with anyone and everyone revolving around Essendon but the reality is that Essendon, with James Hird at the helm, has now been found to have been trying to cheat the system. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, both Essendon and Hird did the wrong thing.

Hird says he trusted the governance Essendon put around the supplements program and the people directly in charge of administering it.

Yet, as the then head coach, he still has not put up his hand and admitted his part in the whole thing.

Hird's playing record is already in the history books. Unfortunately, Hird's and Essendon's supplements saga is now also firmly in the same history books.

Sadly, the young players caught up in all this will never be sure of what really happened and they may never know what were injected with at the club in 2012. Down the track, who will ever know if illnesses suffered are as a result of the program, especially of the players and their doctors are never given a full list of substances administered to them during that dark time. Already players like Paddy Ryder and Hal Hunter have raised legitimate but unanswered questions.

I wrote about this whole saga in detail back in August 2015 and discussed it on air several times throughout 2014. Each time I was deluged by a volley of Twitter trolls and callers who amazingly hell-bent on defending their club despite the overwhelming evidence that the club had badly let down those very fans (along with the players). Unsurprisingly, these keyboard warriors have remained silent this last week but I am ready for the next onslaught.

After the past week's events, what I wrote then remains just as relevant as ever:

"This whole sorry episode in Australian sport should not be forgotten or swept under the carpet as the football caravan moves on into another finals' series. Genuine changes, in rules and attitudes, should be made to ensure such jaw-dropping events do not occur again in the future."

In life, the truth hurts at times but unless one accepts the truth you cannot move on and learn from it.

Past behaviour is a strong predictor of future behaviour. Until you learn the lesson, you will keep making the same mistake.

Let's hope the AFL has the strength to make the sweeping changes to its code it so desperately needs to avoid another club in the future taking the "whatever it takes approach" as literally as Essendon did in 2012.

Karalee Katsambanis is a mother-of-three and a journalist for more than 20 years. Listen to her on 6PR's PerthTonight with Chris Ilsley between 9pm-10pm on Mondays.

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