A Standing Question

The primary tactic in the AFL’s supplements saga remains to shift the focus onto the Essendon Football Club and James Hird. It is employed by the AFL, by the media, and by the general public. To these people I have but one simple question:

 What exactly did they do?

The most disturbing allegation levelled at Essendon is the fact that they remain unable to unequivocally determine the administered substances.

This remains a frightening sound bite.

They don’t know what they injected into their players? Scary.

Following revelations of potential ‘rogue elements’ infiltrating the club certainty on the issue becomes impossible. Essendon’s concession demonstrates honesty, integrity. No club could be certain given the, as yet unsustained, allegations against their sports scientist. Any organisation would have to concede the same. Yet without the allegation, they have no need to make the concession.

It was a matter of innocent until accused, then the presumption shifted to guilty until proven innocent.

This successful shift from the presumption of innocence to Napoleonic justice, by the likes of Patrick Smith, is what sealed Essendon’s fate. They were being asked to prove an impossibility, to prove a negative.

This reframing should never have been permitted by the media, let alone advocated, and it would never have held up in court.

Unfortunately for Essendon, the AFL’s borderline illegal propaganda war prevented the case reaching the courts. They received a moral victory with the aquittal of Dr. Bruce Reid, but this was little comfort the punished innocent parties, which includes tens of thousands of angry fans.

Claims or allegations require evidence to be sustained. It is an easy task, it only requires one solid piece of evidence. On the other hand, no amount of non-confirmatory evidence becomes irrefutable proof that something never happened. Thus the burden must always be on the prosecution, in this case the AFL and ASADA, to prove the guilt of the accused.

Demands such as ‘prove you didn’t take an unknown substance’ – or ‘prove you’ve never cheated on a partner’ for a real world example – are unreasonable, as an airtight defence simply cannot be established regardless of guilt or innocence. This is precisely why the presumption of innocence is foundational to a just society.

All Essendon can reasonably do is produce their paperwork, invoices and the regulatory framework implemented by the club. All these suggest Essendon had no case to answer. Of course, Essendon cannot be certain something unplanned didn’t take place, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary this argument is moot.

Essendon do know what they (still) believe their players were administered and according to advice from ASADA, it was legal. ASADA’s advice was wrong, at least according to WADA, which introduces a second layer of potential doping violations.

However, the distinction is a legal technicality, as the substances in question are neither performance enhancing, nor dangerous. It may appear weak for Essendon to base their defence on a technicality, but it is equally frivolous to prosecute over one. This doubtless contributes to ASADA’s reluctance to issue infraction notices. And the fact ASADA would have to concede their own culpability in open court could have a minor influence on their inaction.

Essendon have not, and will not, be proved guilty.

Yet, the AFL and the media continue to slur Essendon whenever their own actions are called into question.

At his resignation press conference, outgoing AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou denied his own culpability with the inflammatory recrimination, ‘I never injected anyone’.

For this to be his criterion, Demetriou must concede Essendon and the sanctioned officials were equally innocent. Essendon’s coaching staff or administration never injected anyone, either.

But more to the point, this was not the issue at hand. The question was regarding the AFL’s mishandling of the joint AFL/ASADA investigation and Demetriou’s own personal failings, and how they contributed to him being forced out of the league.

Demetriou’s response was simply another example of blame shifting. A distraction. A red herring. The public should not fall for it, nor should a competent media allow it to pass. But at this stage, the astute sports fan knows where we stand on accredited media interests, and unfortunately most of the public follows the distortions.

Mark Robinson resorted to deploying Demetriou’s diversionary tactics in defence of his alleged newspaper’s disgraceful outing of some of the players involved. ‘Alleged’, as there still remains little evidence the Herald Sun does ‘news’.

Echoing Demetriou’s sentiments, Robinson effectively stated, ‘It’s not my fault I’m unethical, it’s Essendon’s fault they can’t prove a logical impossibility’.

Bear in mind this accusation could be laid at anyone, about anything. It indicates a disingenuous, or at the very least an irrational, accuser.

Essendon’s supplement program and the Herald Sun’s decision to publicly name and shame innocent people are two separate issues.

The former remains untried and deserves the presumption of innocence. This will not change until infraction notices are issued and either the courts uphold the charges or Essendon pleads guilty.

The latter was morally reprehensible and universally condemned by all observers outside of the Herald Sun.

There is a distinction between ‘public interest’ and ‘the public interest’ which most in the media fail to acknowledge. When publishing sensitive information, it doesn’t matter if the public are interested, it only matters if it is necessary to advance the cause.

Robinson conceded this point when he admitted the release of players names did not alter the investigation. It was a tasteless attempt to sell papers.

The publishing of the names also necessitated criminal leaks of privileged information involving personal medical records and an ongoing investigation. To be fair, these crimes likely occurred before the information was received by the Herald Sun.

The repeated theme throughout the entire saga was that the Essendon Football Club was infiltrated by an undesirable character who could have been operating beyond the anti-doping code or any notion of ethics. While there has been no hard evidence produced to actually support this claim, it becomes the de-facto starting point for the public understanding of the case. Stephen Dank was the villain.

If we accept this narrative, the ‘crimes’ at Essendon were simply to place their trust in a professional who possessed arcane knowledge they did not.

This is precisely why experts are sought. If Essendon had the internal expertise with the ability to adequately monitor, understand and overrule said expert, he would become unnecessary. This is not a failing, it is the system working as it should.

Backtracking one step, blame could reasonably be levelled at Essendon’s management and their human resources department, but there are two problems with this line of thought.

Firstly, the AFL’s predetermined punishments unfairly laid blame on an arbitrary figure in what is effectively middle-management. In modern football, the head coach isn’t even the head of the coaching department, let alone the entire organisation. Ultimate responsibility for governance lies elsewhere, yet Hird wore the brunt of the ‘punishment‘.

Secondly, the notion of ‘due diligence’ is little more than a buzz phrase that facilitates stalling or withholding information from the public sphere. Appointing acquaintances and personal contacts is the standard practice throughout life, not only football. This rule will be on display when Gillon McLachlan inherits Demetriou’s position. This doesn’t exonerate Essendon, but it demonstrates why their governance issues are not all they seem.

Apparently, the distinction depends on the result. Essendon’s governance only became an issue because of the outcome, whereas other clubs employing the same practices weren’t culpable because their mismanagement wasn’t exploited.

It is derelict in their duties for the AFL to determine a wrongdoing is acceptable provided the responsible party is not identified, but aside from the moral irresponsibility, this distinction is contingent on an overt error of fact.

At least 11 other AFL clubs are known to have run supplements programs which similarly entered experimental realms; some involved injections, and all lacked adequate administration and control. Even the alleged ‘rogue element’, Dank, had direct connections to multiple clubs and in some cases administered similar substances. Who knows what else Dank is responsible for, or others of his ilk for that matter?

The AFL’s disapproval of sport scientists was public knowledge.

In 2012, Demetriou publicly expressed his concerns, yet did nothing to circumvent the involvement of pharmacologically experimental practices in the sport. In fact, it was his regime that relaxed regulations surrounding injections. When their lax regulations were exploited, as was the case with priority picks and ‘tanking’, the AFL opted to stick it’s head in the sand and hope it would go away. It didn’t.

These repeated errors of judgement reinforce serious concerns over the league’s own governance. With respect to sports science, the league openly accepts its failings, yet not the responsibility for them.

Odd. One would assume the two are a matching pair.

I wonder who else could use that defence. Simply stating ‘oops’, then wiping your hands on your trousers is not the finest example of accountability, nor is it how guilt is absolved.

From a governance perspective, 11 other clubs and the AFL itself share the blame. As do ASADA and most of the media. Managerial incompetence, or outright corruption, remain the common theme and Essendon are merely the figurehead for systemic failures at every level from a suburban football club all the way through to the national government authority.

And of course, legally, Essendon remain innocent and will continue to do so.

So in future, before you slander the Essendon Football Club, it’s staff and players, feel free to explain what they actually did. Or if you notice someone – especially in the media – making this mistake, hold them accountable.


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  1. #1 by Walter R on August 1, 2014 - 9:04 am

    Just found your article. So good. Puts nearly all the media into the Hall of Shame.


    • #2 by Steven Williamson on August 1, 2014 - 10:01 am

      Thanks, I thought it a little convoluted. I’m thinking of splitting it into two shorter, simpler and easier to follow pieces.


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