Bulldog Stewart Crameri would likely have finished his ban very early in the 2015 season if his pragmatic president Peter Gordon had succeeded in his endeavours to cut a deal that was to be brokered by the AFL counsel.
Similarly, Angus Monfries and Paddy Ryder would have completed their short suspensions had their club chairman, David Koch, exerted a stronger influence on them than their former Bomber teammates. Shortly after the CAS earthquake levelled Essendon, Koch made it plain that he had sought a deal, only for it to be scuppered by peer pressure.
Crameri, initially interested in a deal, changed his stance. In Crameri's version, reported back in April, his mother encouraged him to avoid a plea bargain. But it is also clear that he did not want to break ranks with the 33 teammates, who were – at least in public positioning – unwilling to accept what was seen as a surrender. Gordon was trying to cook up a deal with the AFL's counsel Jeff Gleeson, who was empowered to negotiate on Crameri's behalf with ASADA before the conclusion of the AFL tribunal hearing. By using the disguise of pre-season games, Gordon thought then he could get Crameri an effective ban of 2-4 weeks.
How does that deal look today?
James Hird wrote of the "sliding doors" at Essendon in 2012 when Dean Robinson came with Stephen Dank in tow, rather than another conditioning man from English soccer. For Essendon of 2013, there was a sliding door when, partly at Hird's instigation, Paul Little replaced David Evans as chairman and changed the game plan from negotiation to confrontation, as the Dons marched off to court and off a cliff. For the 34 players, there were a couple of sliding doors in 2014 and even early in 2015, when they might have chosen to cut a deal, rather than fight to clear their names.
The Essendon 34 have paid a hefty price for the rigidity of the WADA code, which is designed to deal with athletes as individuals first. But they have also been hurt by their own solidarity with one another, the apparent picket line that no one was willing to cross and a lack of dissent, both in 2012 and thereafter.
United they stood. United they've fallen.
Solidarity can be powerful and intoxicating. Teams cannot win without it. Trade unions are entirely founded upon it. It is particularly potent when a group are galvanised against what they see as injustice.
Footy clubs demand unity and teamsmanship: All for one and one for all. Side by side. In 2012, Essendon players acted collectively in accepting a dodgy injection regime that an incompetent club assured them was kosher. David Zaharakis was among the few dissenters and, consequently, has averted both three years of anxiety and the subsequent wipe out.
Crameri, had he followed the Bulldogs' leader, rather than acquiesed to the collective will of teammates – and possibly other parties – would be a free player. Ditto for Monfries, Ryder and potentially anyone who was willing to buck the collective mindset. It is never easy to go against the grain, but the players could exercise more free will in 2014 and 2015 than in 2012 when they were being injected.
The players, their association and lawyers maintained the fighting line that they "have done nothing wrong" and that "we aren't drug cheats" as a justification for having their day in court, instead of adopting a more hard-headed view and striking a deal with ASADA.
This notion that "we're not cheats" was a case of emotion overiding reality. If they had quietly copped plea bargains, with Cronulla-style short bans, their image would be far more intact. Had deals been accepted (they were offered by ASADA in 2014), the charge would have one of inadvertent doping, instead of what's transpired.
We would never have learnt about the failure to disclose information about injections to the drug testers, and the spotlight would not have shone on the club-driven secrecy that damned them. Anyone copping a deal might have argued, convincingly, that he didn't think he'd done anything wrong and had followed instructions, but that he'd weighed up the odds and decided he couldn't risk a career-ruining ban. This would have taken into account the prospect of appeal, particularly from the Big Bad Wolf WADA. The possibility of having their house blown down in CAS was underestimated by the players, their union, lawyers and Essendon. Prior to the CAS hearing, the club still "believed" that even if found guilty, the players wouldn't be suspended.
The players, like Hird, wanted total victory and vindication. Unfortunately, a quest for 100 per cent victory often carries the risk of total defeat. Despite the steps the 34 did not take in 2012, it remains the case that Essendon was overwhelmingly responsible for placing the players at risk of suspension, as the club has repeatedly stated. That the players were angry at the club appears to have added to their resolve to fight the charges. Since Tuesday, much of the discussion has been about allocating shares in this epic disaster. Hird still thinks he is a minority shareholder, rather than a controlling or significant interest. Everyone tends to diminish his own role. That's what people do.
The CAS verdict, unfortunately, cast the players themselves in a far worse light than at any time in the scandal. This revision would not have happened had they taken a deal. There has been, from public and media, a reappraisal of their failings, their stake in the debacle increased.
Yet, they can still say they followed team orders. They did as they were told by the club. The independence exercised by Zaharakis, who shunned Dank's needle, was conspicuous for its absence. They maintained unity, in fighting the doping agencies. They never walked alone.
Even as they split up, went bush, to coaching jobs and to other clubs, they remained a team. Only the Bulldogs pair of Crameri and Brent Prismall had separate lawyers. Their legal team has complained, not without cause, that the verdict harshly judged them as a "job lot" – that the nuances of each individual case had been overlooked.
The CAS saw them as a collective – precisely how the players saw themselves.
Jake Niall is a senior sports writer at 'The Age' specialising mainly in coverage of the AFL. He writes a weekly column for 'The Sunday Age' and has been on staff with 'The Age' or 'Sunday Age' since 1995. Jake, who combines original news with commentary, match-based writing, features and analysis, has won a number of awards, including the Alf Brown award for the best performer in AFL media in 2012, the Melbourne Press Club's 2007 Quill award for best sports story in any medium and a Walkley award, shared with colleagues Richard Baker, Nick McKenzie, Caroline Wilson and John Silvester, for best coverage of a major issue (Essendon scandal) in 2013.
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