AFL Drug Policy, Essendon, and Predictable Outcomes

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This is an editorial from the chairman of AFANA regarding the Essendon drug scandal.

There is a saying that true insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If so, where the AFL and its clubs find themselves today is a predictable outcome. Watching the Essendon supplements saga from a distance has been a long and torturous road with the end results (and we're far from the end) yet to be written.

Before offering my analysis of the scandal, let's look at the AFL drug policy. On paper, the idea seems well meant. Test players for the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and for use of illegal "recreational" drugs (though any addict will tell it becomes occupational when it dominates your life) and treat those players. As much as legally possible, keep the results secret until a third offense and treat the players in private. Don't tell anyone beyond the doctors and selected league or club officials of the results and certainly don't publicize them. As a general practice, this is what some of my former employers did and it makes sense, but only to a point and if administered honestly.

Unfortunately, it's what happens out of the light of day that ends up mattering. Out of sight, out of mind might make you sleep better at night while the mice raid the cupboard but the damage is still going on. When it comes to light in the day, the feeling you get erases any comfort you might have had. In this case, drug users are the mice and the AFL thinks it controls the light switch and has placed the bait. The problem, as we saw this past week, is that it doesn't do a good job at the switch and the bait has been moving around.

In the aftermath of the Ben Cousins debacle, you'd think they would have learned. Sadly, they didn't. Mishandled by the club and the league, the drug use undermined the club and the league as well as harmed the individual. The Cousins affair contributed to tearing apart a championship club, which has reached a preliminary final only once since then. To the credit of West Coast, they have changed the club culture. The AFL, despite signs that the policy had weaknesses and that the testing regime never once gave a positive result on Cousins, kept to the same course.

The startling revelations, in the courts, the press, and by the AFL's head medical doctor, suggest that the suspicions many had that they have gamed the drug testing are true. They have colluded with the various parties to cover-up adverse results and reverse direction when it suited them. We now know that the AFL was aware of much that Essendon was planning to do and was doing, as far back as 2011. We know that they have conveniently "withdrawn" players from the competition (and presumably colluded with clubs to issue false statements to explain why players were unavailable) or prematurely “retired” players** from the competition. The identity of these players is unknown and really doesn't matter in the big picture, but it will eventually come out. **Since this was written, the AFL has stated it did not retire players involuntarily, but recommended the players retire instead and some violations apparently don't count. see here and here.

The relevant issue is that drug use was covered up not to protect the players or preserve the integrity of the competition, but to protect the league's public image. The annual statistics, implying the league has fewer positive results than it did in the early years of the policy, are simply papering over the worst sores. The AFL might have fewer drug users, but the ones they do have are hidden and cancerous, and it hasn't been good. I cannot imagine managing a club and not knowing if I have chronic drug users on the ground. I am not unsympathetic to the position of the AFLPA in this matter. They want what best serves their members including secrecy and maintaining growth in player salaries. In the end though, what is good for the AFLPA might not always be good for the game overall.

The AFL gave the keys to people at Essendon who they knew would drive the car off the cliff and they watched it happen (why?). After it did, they punished Essendon for doing what they let them do and tried to blame Essendon entirely. If Essendon and the league sat down and discussed the pending supplements program then watched while it unfolded; if the AFL secretly sent samples off to Europe for testing and then when it didn't get the results it expected, it still watched and did nothing, it was hypocritical in the worst way when it feigned ignorance about the program after it became public. Moreover, the AFL was complicit in the entire scandal since you bear some responsibility if you see a crime and do not report it.

If Essendon was warned but proceeded anyway, if it allowed Stephen Dank to pursue his plan without adequate oversight, it was irresponsible in the worst way toward the club, the fans, and the players. As to the players, anyone who allows themselves to be injected with a substance not fully disclosed or discussed with them is being very careless at best. Any professional athlete, whose body is their livelihood, should in this day and age be on guard about anything injected or ingested at all times. In fairness, the players bear the least responsibility here and were victims of a broken system.

The AFL's own investigative report, issued late last season, is a piece of (bad) work. Read critically, from a scientific point of view, I find it full of errors and misleading statements.* It might meet some legal standard but it was clearly written by lawyers and league officials who don't know or understand the science.* (Note: I was a trained scientist and engineer in my earlier career and although a “rocket scientist”, I did study enough organic chemistry to know what a protein is and isn't.)

The AFL internal investigation was incompetently done and reported. For example, peptides are naturally occurring biological molecules made up of amino acids and differ from proteins only arbitrarily in their size. Let's quote Wikipedia here, since they nail it on the head: “The term peptide has been incorrectly or unclearly used to mean illegal secretagogue and peptide hormones in sports doping matters... The Australian Crime Commission (incorrectly using the term peptides) cited the alleged misuse of the following illegal peptide secretagogues used in Australian sport—and specifically by Jobe Watson from the Essendon Football Club: growth hormone releasing hormones CJC-1295, GHRP-6, GHSR (gene) hexarelin. There is ongoing controversy on the legality of using peptide secretagogues in sports.” I could go on for hundreds more words discussing the errors in the report, but you get the idea.

Moreover, I believe the AFL colluded with ASADA here, too. If the courts sustain the current action and determine that in fact, ASADA acted outside its legal authority in the joint investigation with the AFL, then my guess is that no player is disciplined beyond what has already occurred. The AFL will have pulled off a skillful manipulation of the system.

The AFL will have reversed course and punished Essendon even though they in fact knew what was going on, and let it happen. They then compromised any outside action by ASADA and WADA to prevent any further sanctions coming from it. We can't yet say they knowingly compromised the investigation but it would surprise me if that proves not to be fact later. In the end, Essendon will have suffered and aside from missing finals, the players get a pass. James Hird will have been given the worst penalties.

There are no winners here but the cover-up will prove worse than the crime. For far too long the AFL has tried to imitate the NFL but in this instance, even failed to do that. The AFL's “old boys club” will have made off with their millions in salaries and benefits, especially former CEO Andrew Demetriou. The sheer dishonesty with which the AFL executive and board have pursued their drug policy and the Essendon matter, deserve no less than the ouster of anyone remaining who had knowledge of the matter and did nothing or who participated in it. Any club presidents and officials, the medical staff, and anyone at Essendon who was involved deserve the same. I doubt there is much that can be done about the incompetence of ASADA and WADA but that is another discussion for another time.

I don't believe in witch hunts just to punish someone so it can be said that you have “done something” and that has already happened here. However, this saga and the cover-up necessitate a house cleaning the likes of which the AFL has not seen before. Nothing less will enable the change of policy and culture needed. The policy of secrecy must end. The culture of cover-up must end. Then and only then, can fans again have confidence that the game has integrity and the players are really getting the care they need.

This editorial represents the opinion of the author and should not be considered the opinion of our members, advertisers, sponsors, partners or affiliates.


Comments

hirdy fan 's picture

Re: AFL Drug Policy, Essendon, and Predictable Outcomes

We will wait and see what happens in the federal court on the 11th August then let the truth be known cause ASADA should be boarded up and shut down for good they are just as bad as the afl itself.

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