Whatever it takes

Last week, the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) handed down its findings in the case of the World Anti-Doping Agency and thirty-four players of Essendon Football Club, overturning the AFL’s Anti-Doping Tribunal’s earlier decision to acquit the players of any wrongdoing over allegations that players took banned substances during the 2012 AFL Season. On Sunday, former Essendon coach and ‘golden boy’ James Hird broke his silence in an excruciating hour-long interview with ABC’s Tracey Holmes, in which he was asked more questions about his feelings than he was about the forty-eight page finding published by CAS which detailed the case against the players. And it is a pretty damning case. (Read the full report here.)

It centres around the use of a peptide, thymosin beta-4, which is a protein that stimulates the creation of new blood and muscle cells, speeding healing after injury or hard training. The protein is naturally occurring in the body, but use of it as a supplement is banned in the AFL Anti-Doping Code. According to the case presented by the Anti-Doping Agency to the court, Stephen Dank, Essendon’s sports scientist in 2011 and 2012, procured and then administered via injection regular doses of TB-4 to Essendon players. The players knew that this was happening, WADA argued, and failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that the banned substance was not entering their bodies.

When considering doping allegations, CAS does not need to be satisfied ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that players took banned substances, but only ‘comfortably satisfied’. And it is hard to see how anyone reading the timeline of the events and the case put together by WADA could think the CAS was wrong in its ruling. Perhaps Hird’s performance on Sunday rested on the assumption that most people wouldn’t read the actual findings. Indeed, he insisted throughout the interview that it was difficult to see where the blame for the program really lay; that he ‘did not believe’ banned substances were ever given to his players. Everyone ‘should have done more’ but he couldn’t say for sure who was at fault. For a man who, at the time, held a position of considerable responsibility in a club he himself had played for throughout his entire career, this seems a remarkably lax approach to his life’s work.

It was his characterisation of the players, though, that I found most interesting. ‘Those 34 players are victims of this situation,’ he said, ‘a situation that, at the first instance, is the responsibility of the Essendon football club.’ Certainly, in the findings, the players do not come across as entirely innocent victims. They were told to keep the injections a secret, and they did so – the best possible interpretation of which being that they thought the secretive nature was to prevent other clubs finding out; or, as the findings themselves say, ‘at its lowest, consistent with [the supplementation program’s] controversial nature’. The club doctor, Bruce Reid, was pretty clearly kept out of the knowledge loop about the injections, even going so far as to commit to writing that he was uneasy about working with the team at the time given he was not being told about what supplements were being given to the players. At one point, some players did raise concerns about the supplementation program; the team was then given consent forms to sign which listed ‘thymosin’ but claimed it was not in contravention of any WADA rules. The fact that no players confided in the team doctor or sought further information about the substances they were given was a key point in the case against them.

Still, they don’t quite appear to be fully cognisant co-conspirators in a plot to defy AFL rules. Rather, they come across, in the ruling, a bit like rabbits in a trap: faced with the option to speak out against their club or say nothing, they appeared to opt for a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach, which ended up contributing to the findings against them.

This is partly because in doping rulings, the ultimate responsibility for taking banned substances rests with the athlete. On one hand this makes sense: an athlete should be proactive in their own health and what does or doesn’t enter their body. But how does this play out in practice? Elite athletes are never competing solely for themselves: their coaches, clubs and sponsors all have a material stake in their success. In a team environment, that pressure only increases.

Consider, then, a team environment encased in the monolithic corporate structure of the AFL. In 2011, Essendon had a cash turnover of $5.2 million, net assets of $22.7 million, as well as 50,271 paid-up members. Only a couple of years later, the average salary for an AFL player was $265,179, with many players receiving in excess of $500,000. There is also the constant glare of the media spotlight, ever angling for the first flash of scandal. In that context, not only are the performance stakes astronomically high, but players are increasingly seen as an investment rather than a person, and are under continual pressure to justify that investment. How many young people would risk a $500,000 salary and what they are constantly told is the opportunity of a lifetime to go against their coaches, their club, their fans, and the people they train with, play with, win and lose with every day? How could an anti-doping education program possibly compete with the loyalties generated – and enforced – in such a context?

Running through the report, there are flashes of insight into how dehumanising being a corporate asset can be:

AFL shot

And yet, the anti-doping codes still lay the ultimate responsibility at the feet of the players themselves, and reject leniency in sentencing on the basis of reduced responsibility due to social and material pressures. The players may not have been the architects of the scheme, say the Court, but ‘they were insufficiently careful as to the nature of the regime to which they were subjected’.

The CAS findings argue that ‘the present is not the case to explore whether the team environment can ever justify the failure to take steps obligatory for an athlete in an individual sport.’ But surely there is a qualitative difference in the social and material pressures of the team environment and individual competition, and merit in attempting to consider what such structures, particularly those as regimented and ruthless as professional AFL, which churn through players like mincemeat, might encourage committed, loyal sportspeople to do.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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  1. A compelling summary – if only all those shooting off at the mouth about this case would read the CAS findings so carefully.

    We definitely need a new approach, distinguishing between individual and team sports, and the compromised position of the players.

    The internal dynamics of AFL teams and clubs will never be the same after this. Among other things, I suspect we’ll see parents become more proactive and organised, and players have wider expectations for their elected player leaders. All power to them if they do.

    And perhaps new ways can be developed to support the welfare of players sitting out bans – the current practice seems almost cruel, to expect them to be cut off so decisively from the club and the sport in any organised capacity.

    That said, while there are young boys within the Essendon group, on a fraction of the average salary with little access to club officials or their own trusted advisors or mentors, there were also experienced players (men in their late 20s and early 30s) including ones who had experience at other clubs. And there were players who said no, if only one or two. There’s some evidence player leaders raised some concerns, but unsuccessfully and demonstrably not as persistently as they needed.

    The backdating of the 2 year penalty did show some sensitivity to the invidious position the players were in, as does the allowance for them to return to training prior to the end of the ban.

    1. “We definitely need a new approach, distinguishing between individual and team sports, and the compromised position of the players.”

      NO, we don’t. Doping is doping regardless of sport, individual or team sport. WADA says so and the rest of the world agrees. No exceptions for AFL (an outdated, insular, sexist organisation with 3 strikes policy on drugs!!!)

      “new ways can be developed to support the welfare of players sitting out bans”

      Really? Why support cheaters? What message are we sending to wider society? Take some drugs, cheat and if ‘they’ find out you still get money/support/jobs or whatever you have in mind.

      The whole Essendon club should be banned for three years. Only way to send a message!

  2. Interestingly, Michael Flood from Wollongong Uni recently wrote a paper on strategies for combating misogyny in AFL clubs, and identified as obstacles many of the same dynamics that support the doping culture.

      1. Yeah, I’ve got it somewhere. Let me cast about and send it your way. Flood is a significant researcher in causes and responses to male violence, so always has something interesting to say.

  3. “How many young people would risk a $500,000 salary and what they are constantly told is the opportunity of a lifetime to go against their coaches, their club, their fans, and the people they train with, play with, win and lose with every day?”

    At least one player did, as far as I know, and was delisted. Now Essendon are thinking of re-enlisting him. He’d be mad to agree.

    The code is stuffed full of macho pricks – Dustin Martin for starters, and those two latest morons from Collingwood, who exposed themselves to women at random on social media.

  4. Your article is very poorly researched. And clearly you have little understanding of the facts and the evidence.

      1. That’s a bit lazy Stephanie. Shouldn’t you be doing your own research and not leaving it up to one of the central players in the matter? Also, reading the judgement (which has had significant questions raised by legal minds as to it’s validity), watching the Hird interview and digging up a few financials seems like insufficient research to me.

  5. Ho hum, another article that shows just how conditioned people are to the mistruths in this saga. The first issue Stephanie, is that you haven’t considered the Essendon structure of management; well maybe you have but it didn’t suit your bias.

    1. If you have an argument to make about why this is important, why not make it, rather than merely alluding to mysterious key elements that might change people’s minds?

  6. The CAS report is damning in how many assumptions of guilt it associates to all the possibilities.
    If you had followed the story from the start you might have a better idea as to how the CAS document was drafted off previous ASADA mis-information.
    Once again where are the positive tests?
    2 players out of 34 show elevated levels of TB4 which can occur naturally and there were many other players from other clubs that had elevated levels. So either other clubs should be banned or more likely the levels can vary due to injury recovery.

    1. CAS do not need positive tests to rule that a doping violation has occurred, they only need to be ‘comfortably satisfied’, and can absolutely rely on circumstantial evidence (which they have done in this case).

      I think it is less useful to speculate on whether they did or didn’t do it than to take the report on face value and ask what this might say about internal sporting cultures in Australia today.

  7. It was reported recently how Neil Balme (a Collingwood head honcho) suggests the AFl cease its affiliation with ASADA. Good that they hooked up with them when they did, and good too that Essendon committed their sin of hubris by not taking the quick fix like Cronulla did. What would we have learned otherwise. Nothing useful. Now Essendon and the AFl know that we know that they have to change their games. Pity ASADA don’t handle racisim and sexism too.

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