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:
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.