It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was only three months, back in early March, when I lamented the fact that the Essendon Drugs Saga was still dominating the headlines. It was a year on from the “darkest day in Australian sport” press conference where the first inklings of the shady practices at the Essendon Football Club were outed.
Many thought that the fines and suspensions handed out by the AFL prior to last years’ finals series would be the end of the matter, but, as the events of the past week have shown, it was really only the beginning. The issuing of show cause notices by ASADA to 34 past and present Essendon players means the Saga is now not merely a distraction, it’s something that has the potential to derail numerous careers.
ASADA appears super confident that it has enough evidence to prove the likelihood that players took an illegal substance. It must do – the issuing of notices is not something done flippantly, or in the hope that evidence will be uncovered. They’ve got Essendon and they know it.
Essendon knows it too. Their response to ASADA’s actions, a lawsuit claiming that the joint ASADA and AFL investigation was illegal, is a last-ditch roll of the dice that is destined to fail. It’s based around a technicality at best, and at worst it’s an attempt to create a distraction from the fact that a large chunk of their playing group is facing two-year suspensions from the game.
As poor as this situation is for the players, it is right for them to be suspended, using the precedent set by accidental performance-enhancing drug takers in other sports. Every individual has the ultimate responsibility for what they put into their bodies. For the Essendon players to have accepted the “pharmacologically experimental” practices that existed at the club without raising serious concerns is as unfortunate for them as it is mind-boggling to the rest of us.
Ultimately though, it is the club that has committed the absolute sin of failing to care for its players. The man at the centre of it all, former coach James Hird, can surely not come back to the club now. Even if the notices do not result in suspensions, Hird – who has also launched legal proceedings declaring the investigations of last year illegal – has a reputation that is completely shot. There wouldn’t be too many parents happy to hand over their precious son to a coach who at every turn has stubbornly refused to accept a shred of responsibility for the plainly tawdry goings-on that occurred on his watch.
It’s easy for supporters of other clubs to throw barbs at Essendon. But what’s not easy is to put yourself in the position of the Bombers supporter who must now contemplate not only being tossed out of the 2013 finals series, but facing the very real prospect of their 2015 and 2016 teams consisting of third-string players with no hope of competing meaningfully at an AFL level. That’s if the Bombers can field a team at all.
Admittedly, I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a lot more to play out before the Saga is resolved. Already there is talk of the potential for legal action by the players involved against the club for failing in its duty of care. And then there’s the potential for legal action by clubs such as Fremantle and Port Adelaide, who traded for Bombers players that may (or may not be) part of the group of 34.
Bombers coach Mark Thompson claimed that the team’s loss to Melbourne on the weekend wasn’t due to off-field distractions. I’m not so sure; you’d have to be super-human not to be affected by the prospect of losing your job for two years. The Bombers players are a talented bunch and have managed to ride out the storm so far, but what they’re facing now may be one bridge too far for even the most mentally strong young men.
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