In late August, the Essendon Football Club were thought to have been dealt the most severe sanctions in AFL history:
- 12 month suspension to James Hird
- 6 months suspension to Danny Corcoran
- $30,000 fine to Mark Thompson
- Elimination from the 2013 finals series
- No draft picks for 2 years
- $2 million fine to the Essendon Football Club
James Hird’s sanctions have now been revealed to be a fully funded gap-year complete with paid tuition and a contract extension.
Danny Corcoran’s suspension was also with pay and two months of the term were suspended. He received a 4 month paid vacation during the off season.
Mark Thompson received a fine, but also stepped up to fill Hird’s vacancy. He received a promotion and a raise.
In addition to these ‘punishments’, Dr. Bruce Reid had all charges dropped and took a short break from the club. He too received a paid vacation on top of legal vindication.
None of the individuals charged received a punishment beyond perceptions.
To the club, the sanctions appeared significant, but they are not.
Sacrificing a position in the finals was unprecedented and deeply upsetting to the club, players and fans alike. However, on the field the club had run it’s race. The pressures of a long season and intense media scrutiny had taken it’s toll. The ultimate goal of a 17th premiership was never a realistic possibility. Winning a single finals match was doubtful. The sanction amounts to nothing.
The draft sanctions were (and still are by some commentators) widely sensationalised in the media as ‘no draft picks for two years’. The actual punishment was only the first two picks for two years, with a priority pick awarded. In effect, the club lost 3 draft picks and had a 4th upgraded. Or simplified further; the punishment was only two and a half draft picks, none of which were in the all important top 10.
In 2006, Essendon finished 15th on the ladder and received a priority pick at the end of the first round. The club entered the draft with three top 20 draft picks. These picks were used on Scott Gumbleton, Leroy Jetta and Tom Hislop.
Hislop was delisted after a handful of games.
Gumbleton spent much of his career either on the injury list or in the VFL and has now been traded for a significant loss. Recruited with pick 2, offloaded for pick 55.
Jetta has been at best a fringe player and currently exists as a list clogger due to an existing contract. In 2014 he will rely on injuries, or the sentimentality of reaching 100 the game milestone, to make selection.
The 2006 draft arguably damaged Essendon’s list more than these sanctions will, and it came at a time when the club was struggling on field and in need of a boost. Despite this epic failure at the draft table the club has managed to rebuild from 2nd last on the ladder to a team capable of beating any team on any given day.
Draft picks are the most overvalued commodity in football. List management remains the most important factor, as demonstrated by Sydney’s sustained success or Brisbane’s implosion as a result of the Fevola affair. Talent identification and player development are also important, as evidenced in recent years by the success of mature age recruits and the rookie list. The recent introduction of free agency, which allows better resourced clubs to poach players in search of premiership success, will only devalue draft picks even further.
Considering all this, and the fact that Essendon has an established list already on the verge of success, the draft sanctions will have no immediate or long term effect on the Essendon list.
The only punishment remaining is the money. There was the $2 million fine, but that was only the AFL’s cut. The club paid a similar figure in legal fees, and with the renegotiations of a few contracts and paying staff not to work, all told, the club will have lost in the vicinity of $5-6 million.
It is a frightening number to you and me, but to the most successful club in the AFL? I don’t think so.
In a world of salary caps money becomes negligible to a powerful club. They have no need for money and spend much of their time thinking up ways to waste it; overseas training camps, continual facility upgrades, excessive coaching contracts – many of which end early and are paid out for no return, and indeed medical and supplement regimes.
In the end, if a minnow like Melbourne can pay off a multi-million dollar debt, Essendon can easily account for a similarly sized bill. The money was never of any concern.
As with the individuals, the only remaining punishment is perceptions: the potential damage to their reputation. This was what concerned the club and many of its fans and lead to the original plea deal.
However, being cast as the villain can paradoxically become an advantage. Everyone loves to hate the big end of town. Collingwood and Carlton both benefit from these negative perceptions.
Furthermore, the fears appear unfounded. As the 2013 season unfolded, Essendon posted a record membership tally. Leading into the 2014 season, Essendon are currently 5,000 members ahead of the same point last year and already at a figure most clubs won’t have amassed come round 1.
In the end, Essendon’s punishments were purely symbolic.
In late August, AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick fronted a press conference to hand down what most described as ‘the most severe sanctions in AFL history’.
In mid December, it is now a matter of public knowledge that Essendon received a slap on the wrist and it’s officials were financially and professionally rewarded for taking the fall.
The public must now ask themselves why the AFL were so scared of having the truth aired publicly that they effectively rewarded Essendon’s staff for allegedly orchestrating the biggest scandal in AFL history.
Did the AFL consider Essendon ‘too big to fail’, and were unable to risk damaging the club?
Were the claims from Essendon regarding bad advice from ASADA true, deferring some – if not all – of the blame to the governing bodies? In other words, were the AFL and ASADA not protecting Essendon or the sport itself, but acting in their own self interests?
Or were the AFL simply incompetent and outsmarted by Essendon’s legal team?
It could well be all three.
Whatever the case, the league requires new management to move forward with any credibility.