The Least Severe Sanctions in AFL History

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.


A lot of people have misunderstood this piece, so I’ve decided to include an addendum.
The aim was to start with the presumption that Essendon are guilty as per general perception, and a strict interpretation of the WADA code before any mitigating circumstances. Were that the case, it appears clear that the the punishments were purely symbolic as in theory the entire team should have been banned for two years, effectively destroying the club. (By contrast, Carlton received harsher punishments for a minor salary cap breach on its way to winning a wooden spoon.) Essendon’s punishments were as minimal as they could possibly be while allowing the AFL to claim a forceful response. But later revelations have made a mockery of this position. Who reading this wouldn’t take a year’s vacation on full pay?
It is at this point that doubts should creep in as to the guilt of Essendon, but those who have already reached this conclusion seem to have taken it as a slight. It was not. They have just skipped a step.
Wallowing in self pity is exactly what the AFL wants, it lends credence to their claims, and it gives ammunition to rival clubs.
If on the other hand the punishments are laughed off as the joke I believe they are, other clubs would see Bombers fans aren’t worried and the punishments didn’t fit the alleged crime. The result would be for others to question either Essendon’s guilt, or the lack of severity of the punishments. The AFL would then have to face down the supporters from 17 clubs, rather than just one. It reverses the tables and the numbers. Public pressure could then force a real outcome, rather than the negotiated farce which occurred last August, thereby clearing Essendon and it’s officials.
The final message was one of hope. Draft picks are hit and miss, money doesn’t matter, and paid vacations are good. It’s really not a big deal in the grand scheme. The only damage was to reputations, which will eventually be resolved when the truth comes out. This provides a strategy to hasten that outcome.

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  1. #1 by KB on December 15, 2013 - 10:44 pm

    Interesting analysis and it may be true that in the end we were thrashed within an inch of our laughter by a feather duster. You might add that we were NOT deserted by any sponsors. The upshot of it, as far as the wider picture goes, is that ASADA were compromised by the bullying of Andy & Co. They will use a fine tooth comb to find something to punish us with or string it out to the max (goodness help any future players/clubs who draw their Modorian gaze!) and the AFL were/are petrified of being taken to court (a real one, with wigs and stuff, not of media, Caro, kangaroo or bogan public opinion). But, on the club, it took a toll. Yes, the players rallied under huge emotional stress/drain – will they be able to back up in 2014? What of the effect on Hird – I am holding my breath on that and I am already duck-egg blue. Will we ever be rid of the dank stench? Sure, rival supporters can disappear like suppositories where the sun don’t shine, but we will have to put up with it for a generation or so.


  2. #2 by Able Tasman on December 16, 2013 - 8:07 pm

    Yeap, a coach and captain having their reputations dragged through the mud, a CEO who nearly ended up in hospital due to health problems and nearly $4 million dollars of extra debt put on the club that will effect them for years. Pretty easy to type up a story when you’re not personally involved. Scarcesense is an apt name.


  3. #3 by Margotdeepa Slater-Oliphant on October 9, 2014 - 6:04 pm

    And: here we are in October 2014, the least severe sanctions in history, I think not. The way the AL/ASADA are going they will bring Essendon to its knees the way this saga is going. Then god help any club who does anything to cross the AFL. So many people danaged as a result ofd this on-going drama which has been blamed on the EFC when in fact ASADA ha e managed to drag this out for as long as possible.

    As for James Hird the man is gagged but everyone else has well and truly had their six pence worth and the medfia (the media mafia) have help drag the once mighty EFC their players, staff and supporters through the mud.

    It is a never ending punishment which just keeps producing.


  1. A Standing Question | scarcesense

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