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Out-of-control club falls further into mire

Lack of authority: The Sharks have mishandled the drug investigation that has engulfed the club.

Lack of authority: The Sharks have mishandled the drug investigation that has engulfed the club. Photo: Getty Images

As difficult as it is to imagine, there are sporting organisations better prepared to handle the fallout from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority drugs investigation than the Sharks. The Alice Springs Lifesaving Association, the Randwick Tiddlywinks Club. Maybe even Cricket Australia.

The Bulldogs' adroit handling of Ben Barba's pre-season suspension had seemed a symbolic moment in a new era of professionally administered NRL clubs. The Sharks' descent into chaos, confusion and civil war is a reminder there are still some outfits that lack the organisational skills to run a lemonade stand. Lance Corporal Jones from Dad's Army seems like an expert in crisis management compared with the Cronulla board's best efforts.

The humiliation of chairman Damian Irvine was compounded by his appearance before the media on Wednesday. The manner in which Irvine was verbally manhandled by reporters after announcing his retirement was symptomatic of the lack of authority with which the Sharks have reacted to a grave situation.

Irvine admitted he allowed himself to be pressured by a journalist into revealing his belief players had been administered a substance intended for horses. A strong leader would not have felt this need for self-justification. Certainly not in a tense, late-night phone call with a reporter.

Little wonder the Sharks - players, coaches, fans, paid administrators - sniffed blood in the water. Why the club's dramatic decision to stand down coach Shane Flanagan and members of his support staff was easily portrayed as an act of betrayal and self-preservation. Not, as you can only assume the board intended, an attempt to distance the club from potentially ruinous scandal.

Cronulla's bungling, self-incriminating and chaotic response was made worse by the stark comparison with how Essendon handled their crisis - one linked to the Sharks by the mutual involvement of sports scientist Stephen Dank. The Bombers, with the protective arm of the AFL around their shoulders, circled the wagons. The Sharks ate their own, a feeding frenzy yet to be justified. Other than by Irvine's panicked claim that his players were getting supplements more suitable for Black Caviar than a second-rower.

The outcome? The Cronulla board has martyred Flanagan, his staff and the players, muddied the waters for the ASADA investigators and left a team that is playing to spite its leaders, not serve them. The NRL's troubleshooter Bruno Cullen must wonder if he has been parachuted into the Shire or Mogadishu.

But as damaging as the internal division caused by the Cronulla board is the harm their pre-emptive strike might have caused to the most crucial issue - investigating and, if necessary, punishing those who might have flaunted the rules. Flanagan and his players have the fervent support of their fans because of the manner in which they have been treated. But what if it turns out that there were serious breaches that require tough action?

With the fans' emotions running high, logic has disappeared. An environment has been created whereby, to the ardent Sharks supporters, the coach and players are innocent victims and the board - not to mention ASADA, with whom the club flirted - are the enemy. Thus, regardless of what evidence is produced - and even allowing for Irvine's resignation - it will be all but impossible to convince some that the Sharks are anything but the subjects of a witch-hunt run by the federal government or ASADA.

It is an unhealthy and unstable environment in which to investigate and prosecute a case. No matter how well justified.

Essendon's slick handling of a similar problem raises its own concerns. Particularly the reflexive self-protection and adamant denials of wrongdoing, even by officials who admit they are unaware of the substances administered to players. This has created - or perhaps manufactured - the impression the Bombers are the naive victims. Regardless of their responsibilities to the drug code.

This is something the AFL, particularly, has struggled to accept. On one hand, it lobbies with spectacular success for federal and state government funds to build stadiums and run community programs that is hugely beneficial to the game's growth. At the same time, it seems staggered it is expected to impose - to the letter - a drug policy which is a condition of receiving such generous taxpayer funding. The AFL has mastered spin. The Sharks have spun out of control.

Twitter - @rdhinds

14 comments so far

  • The CQ Bears, Western Reds and Brisbane Bombers organisations will be watching this with interest, and if they are smart, remaining in a state of high alert.

    Commenter
    Jimbob
    Date and time
    March 14, 2013, 12:39AM
    • What's that victory song again? Up up the highway, or the Cronullabor plain.......

      Commenter
      jj
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      March 14, 2013, 1:05PM
  • The Cronulla Sharks are just an old school suburban football club, the Gymea Gorillas grown up, or almost, somewhere the local boys might be able to step onto the big stage. The Chairman is a menswear salesman who gets nothing for running the club, which he does (or did).... I guess.... because noone else wanted to, the coach in the off season tiles the gym floor, the half time entertainment consists of boys from the local district (which the club is pretty much responsible for defining in the first place) playing of all things Rugby League. On the field they run out a team of misfits cast offs and local boys and they give it a hell of a go. But in the world of corporatised sport, corrupted desperate politics and an old school media approaching cataclysm they don't really cut it. Simple suburban folk that they are they think if they've screwed up as long as they sort of put their hands up people will forgive an honest mistake and everything will be sorted out and life will go on. No such luck. Instead they should follow the Eddie Obeid method of admit nothing, lie blatantly and you'll probably get away with it, the way that anyone who can afford high priced QC advice ought to. Hell Just look at Essendon!
    In the end if what the Sharks represent in sport, a local community united, ordinary people having a go, everyday failures being forgiven and redeemed, if that is all done away with in favour of a slick, berautacrised, corporatised, dreary product, sport will no longer be worth watching. it will go the way of the old media where journalists were suppposedly battling for something that was right, not just sales, monay and their worthless jobs.

    Commenter
    GOV
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 14, 2013, 4:30AM
    • Well ... it might not actually be an HONEST mistake. Taking prohibited substances is a pretty deliberate act. Unless the defence is that Sharks players were unwitting guinea-pigs in drug abuse. In which case, we are talking grievous bodily harm and assault by those who administered the substances.

      Seems like the mistake was getting caught.

      Commenter
      Angela
      Location
      Epping
      Date and time
      March 14, 2013, 4:50PM
    • Angela, you say firstly that it 'might not' be an honest mistake and then you say it is a deliberate act. In the name of clear thinking I believe you should make your mind up. 'Might', 'might not' and 'is' are actually different things, it can't be all of them. Maybe in your mind they can be but not in a court of law.

      Commenter
      GOV
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 14, 2013, 6:25PM
  • The AFL has 'managment', sadly the NRL are still looking that word up in the dictionary.

    Commenter
    Ian
    Date and time
    March 14, 2013, 5:02AM
    • Funnily enough I couldn't find 'managment' in the dictionary anywhere. What does it mean? Is it some sort of slang Melbourne term?

      Commenter
      GOV
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 14, 2013, 3:03PM
  • Richard, you and Roy Masters must share the same cubicle. You have turned an article about the incompetence of the Cronulla NRL club into one where you criticize the AFL.

    Instead of sledging the AFL, why don't you take the opportunity to learn from them. The AFL clubs are run by sporting and business professionals and the level of professionalism is something the NRL sorely needs.

    Commenter
    Roy
    Location
    Northern Beaches
    Date and time
    March 14, 2013, 10:34AM
    • GOV, I couldn't have said it any better. Cronulla have suffered from not employing a CEO who could and should be the conduit by which happenings in the football operations are relayed and reported to the board. The reason Cronulla has no CEO is widely known - lack of money. The board has been rightly focussed on trying to save the club financially and Irvine had done good work in gaining approval for the land development that will provide the sustainable basis the club has needed for so long. Should the NRL itself have forseen the governance risks of a club that lacked such a critical leadership capacity and either insisted on its resolution or stepped in to help sooner? Either way when there is leadership vacuum in any organisation, people start to make their own decisions. In any other club would a team coach be officialy reporting to board members about football matters? Probably not, so it is easy to see why there has been such a huge disconnect between board and the football management team. I think Richard is way too harsh on what is essentailly a large group of good local people trying desperately to keep a much loved club alive. For now, I'm prepared to see acute naivety, not malevolence or idioacy as Richard has portrayed.

      Commenter
      Keith
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      March 14, 2013, 10:46AM
      • The Central Coast Sharks has a nice ring to it.

        Commenter
        sam
        Location
        sydney
        Date and time
        March 14, 2013, 12:04PM

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