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by Lisa Albergo reporting for AFANA from Chicago

The saga that has lasted over two years is finally over with the Anti-Doping Tribunal clearing all 34 players involved in the supplements program.The verdict was unanimous and in a statement Tribunal Chairman David Jones spelled out the reasons:

  • The Tribunal was comfortably satisfied that the substance Thymosin Beta-4 was at the relevant time a prohibited substance under the Code.
  • The Tribunal was not comfortably satisfied that any player was administered Thymosin Beta-4.
  • The Tribunal was not comfortably satisfied that any player violated clause 11.2 of the Anti-Doping Code.

The statement also said that a decision regarding "a former Essendon support person" (read: Stephen Dank) would be made at a later date. Whether or not the full 133-page decision document or part of it will be made public is left up to the players, the club and their lawyers. Leaked copies have apparently reached some in the media. In summary, the panel conceded there was insufficient evidence against the players to establish that they had taken TB-4 and it could not be established that the substance they were injected with was in fact, TB-4. The credibility of the key individuals involved was so low and the chain of custody and record keeping so suspect, exactly what was injected could not be proven.

Essendon chairman Paul Little and Coach James Hird fronted the media after the decision was announced. They were roundly applauded as they entered a room at club headquarters to address the crowd and media. Both Hird and Little expressed their relief at the verdict and both thanked everyone who supported them throughout the ordeal. Little paid tribute to the supporters who stuck by the club, saying in part that now children could wear their jumpers and say, "I barrack for Essendon". Both he and Hird also praised the players as a great bunch who had conducted themselves admirably on and off the field with the cloud hanging over their heads, with Hird acknowledging and thanking the "top-up" recruits who came in for the preseason games. The day before the tribunal announced their decision, AFL boss Gil McLachlan suggested that the AFL's anti-doping policy might need to be reviewed. Little suggested that the protocols should be analyzed and that ASADA should perhaps re-evaluate their system, "I don't really want to give ASADA advice ... I think it's healthy for all organizations to review how they performed with such an important matter as this investigation. The AFL and Gil has said today that he plans to do that in due course. We will also have another review on how we've performed. I think ASADA probably needs to and should, but whether they do is their call." Little also said the club was still learning lessons from 2012.

Hird issued an apology and said he was close to being sacked, "I love ... Essendon ... it's been a part of my life since I was born. It was part of my father's life, it was part of my grandfather's life. And I am so sorry for anything that's happened or that's been done wrong to our players or been done wrong to our football club. I and we would never do anything intentionally to harm this football club or to harm the game ... that has given me so much and given so many people so much ... We've certainly had our moments, Paul ... And there have been a few ... heated (moments). But the good of ... Essendon ... has always come first and we've always been able to resolve our issues and take the club forward." Hird also said sitting out of coaching for a year had been difficult and that he had missed it. He also again reiterated his disappointment concerning the leaks to the media during the investigations, "I want to coach ... I missed a year of my coaching career. I only have two years left on my contract, I might not have much longer left. I might not be a good coach, who knows? I was disappointed in missing a year ... There was nowhere else I wanted to be ... so my total focus ... is to coach ... as well as I possibly can. It was a relief ... that finally justice was done for our players ... It is not about anything else but the 34 players and whether they did or didn't receive performance-enhancing drugs ... And it's been proven today ... I think the constant leaks ... would say the players don't have total trust in that system. I mean, how could you? You go to an interview and a day later almost your entire interview was in the paper ... I'm not casting aspersions. Amongst the playing group, there is disappointment ... There is disappointment in us as a club ... there's huge disappointment in the fact that the process wasn't run as ASADA's rules say it should be run."

An emotional captain Jobe Watson was equally effusive in saying how proud he was of his past and present teammates. The players who joined Watson at the media conference were Leroy Jetta, Jake Carlisle, Cory Dell'Olio, Ariel Steinberg, Alwyn Davey, Tayte Pears, Michael Hurley, Alex Browne, Travis Colyer, Michael Hibberd, Jake Melksham, Dyson Heppell, Cale Hooker, Luke Davis, Heath Hocking, Ben Howlett, Dustin Fletcher, Brent Stanton, Tom Bellchambers and David Myers. Also present was former coach Kevin Sheedy who has returned to the club as a director for strategy and innovation. Watson said, "The way in which the players have shown integrity, I couldn't be more proud ... given the situation ... I think the bond this group have, means for the rest of their lives that we'll be able to draw on this experience." He reiterated the players' stance that they had done nothing wrong. "We fully cooperated from the start ... We were totally open books ... All we wanted ... was the truth and we were honest with everything we knew. We hid nothing ... ". He also said he and his teammates were happy to be able to run out for the opening round without the charges hanging over their heads, "I don't know what it's going to feel like ... I have not had that feeling since the sixth of February of 2013 ... I've almost forgotten what it's like ... without having this hanging over our heads." The playing group was at a hotel waiting for the verdict via a video link, " ... at the initial stage, none of us were too familiar with the legal terminology ... so we were a little bit unsure about what that ('not comfortably satisfied") actually meant, and .. it took a couple of moments for us to realize that means 'not guilty'. We all broke into hugs and cheering and it was a really special moment just to be there with the other guys." His dad, Essendon great Tim Watson, said on SEN (where he has returned after a year away) said it had been very difficult for him and that part of the reason he left SEN was to get away from it all and not have to be constantly reminded of it in his media role. He also said he bears no ill-will towards the club he loves or Hird. Morning Glory co-host Andy Maher mentioned how Watson would often turn up for the program looking haggard and tired and again complimented him on how he handled himself on the air throughout the saga.

Over in Adelaide, former Bombers Paddy Ryder and Angus Monfries - not to mention Port Adelaide - were just as relieved. Both listened with CEO Keith Thomas via a phone link. Ryder was greeted with handshakes and hugs from teammates and said he was keen to prove the value of his high-profile recruitment. "After getting the decision I walked past most of the boys ... and they were all shaking my hand and hugging ... We've done the hard yards this preseason ... and I just want to get out there and show them what I can bring to the team." Monfries said the decision would allow the pair to "get on with life". Both thanked their families for their support. Thomas said, "They have been through so much and we are very proud ... how they’ve handled themselves ... They've done a really good job of just putting it to the back of their mind – being in Adelaide provided a slightly easier environment ... they have embraced preseason ... so they are now ready to put their match guernsey on and take up their role ... hat's great credit to them and, I've got to say ... I've watched the Essendon players manage their way through this process and they have been incredible." Over at the Western Bulldogs, Stewart Crameri and dad Bernie took a deep breath. Bernie Crameri said he bore no ill will towards Essendon or James Hird. Just the opposite, he praised Hird for looking after his son and being somewhat of a father figure to Stewart. Another former Bomber, Brent Prismall who is now playing in the VFL was another of the 34 who was cleared.

The AFLPA, while pleased at the outcome, was still critical of Essendon, saying the club was not absolved of blame. CEO Paul Marsh said in a statement, "We have always been of the view that these players have done nothing wrong ... This decision does not absolve the Essendon ... The players were placed in an unacceptable position that put their health and careers at risk. For over two years these players' lives have been hijacked ... through no fault of their own .. The players have withstood enormous uncertainty, public scrutiny and speculation over their health, their careers and their reputations. This decision finally brings that uncertainty and speculation to an end.". The Coaches Association has thrown its support behind Hird, expressing their delight at the outcome and for Hird. Former West Coast coach and current chairman John Worsfold encouraged the League's coaches to refrain from commenting on Hird's role in the long-running saga and said the board reaffirmed its commitment to assist all AFLCA members is in need.

While the majority of the football community was overjoyed at the verdict, the sports anti-doping associations were predictably not happy. ASADA CEO Ben McDevitt referred to the supplements program as "utterly disgraceful" and said it was not a supplements program but "... injection regime ... which let down the fans and the club.  The absolutely deplorable and disgraceful lack of records ... we still have young men not knowing what was injected ...". He also expressed disappointment that the charges could not be proved. He has stated that ASADA is reviewing everything before they decide whether or not to appeal. They have 21 days to do so. If they decide against an appeal, WADA will then also have 21 days after that to appeal if they desire. McDevitt defended ASADA's handling of the investigation and said any delays in proceedings was due to the actions of others. He did seem to be in agreement with McLachlan and Little in that the agency's processes needed reviewing. McDevitt, like so many before him, again called on Stephen Dank to come forward and produce the records he claims to have.

It is doubtful that Dank will do so. He is still furious at ASADA and the AFL, saying ASADA "bungled its investigation" and accused the AFL of "stage-managing" the process. In a television interview he said, " ... the script was written from day one ... There are still things that I need to do ... that I will do and my legal team will do." He said of ASADA, "They've been very, very poor in their conduct, execution and understanding of this whole investigation ... ". He is still adamant that he did not give the players anything illegal, "The players never took anything that was illegal or anything that was against ... WADA ... The players were not guilty of anything. I'm very happy for the players." He also reiterated Hird's consent to the program and sad that he and Hird had a good relationship with "never a cross word". He also believes Hird should have continued his case in a High Court and believes Hird was pressured by Essendon not to pursue his appeal.

Former assistant coach Mark Thompson also expressed his delight at the outcome. In a television interview, while defending his role, he did acknowledge that he probably could have done more to stop the program. He said club doctor Bruce Reid came to him after going to the AFL and not getting any support from them. Nor did the letter Reid wrote to club officials receive any support and that is when Thompson began to worry, especially when staff and players were doing four-day recoveries, "I just wanted them to sleep in, eat good and just rest. They were doing a lot of things." He did defend Dank, saying Dank never set out to cheat and that he hoped one day Dank would come forward.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan hopes ASADA won't appeal the verdict so the saga can finally be laid to rest, "The AFL wishes to reinforce that ASADA and WADA have rights to appeal the decision ... My personal view is no … there's been a decision made after a long protracted period ... it's in my interests now that the competition can go forward ... We all need to move forward together ... That's certainly what we want, I think it's what ... Essendon ... wants, and I certainly know that's what our competition needs and all our supporters need." He also requested the release of the findings behind the verdict once the appeals windows closed, but conceded that was up to the parties involved.

AFANA will publish some editorial commentary in a separate article in the near future.


Article last changed on Wednesday, September 19, 2018 - 3:53 PM EDT

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