Almost three years ago a slow and painful demise commenced. It began with a press conference, the blackest day in Australian sport, and I suspected at the time that it would mark the death of my interest in football. Although not for the reasons you may expect.
The saga has caused more than its share of casualties; players, coaches, support staff, administrators, and even an influence on federal politics and our nation’s international reputation. The alleged doping scandal and the media saturation have seen many fans, from all clubs, lose faith in the sport. I understand their frustrations, but for me the response was quite the opposite.
The blackest day in Australian sport was merely the notification of the official prognosis. In truth, the disease had been festering undetected for years. There were symptoms, many symptoms, often debilitating symptoms, and most struggled through powerless to intervene or ignorant of the severity. The diagnosis was terrible news but it accompanied hope. A hope that perhaps those stoically endured symptoms could be treated. Recovery was always unlikely, but we weren’t dead yet. The saga itself actually revived my interest and belief.
Investigations into disease unveiled many disturbing truths.
We learnt that the AFL, specifically the man promoted to CEO for his misdeeds, sought to corrupt a federal investigation – and omit, exaggerate and fabricate evidence.
We learnt that the AFL failed to follow their own protocols on several occasions in the hope the situation could be ignored.
We learnt of corporate bullying, threats and bribes. Some were current, others past, many damaged or ended careers and one possibly contributed to a man dying of cancer.
We learnt that James Hird, the figurehead of the entire debacle, was ‘not in the top 20 or 30 people’ responsible for the supplements program, had no technical knowledge of the substances, and actively exceeded his official duty to ensure anti-doping guidelines were followed.
We learnt that AOD9604, the drug once at the centre of the media attention, was never to be pursued but the AFL and the media used it to maintain a false narrative and vilify innocent players whose welfare was, and remains, of absolutely no concern.
We learnt that the alleged crimes, which remain unproven, amount to whether or not one man administered the wrong variant of a legal substance either in error or by deceit.
We learnt that that man had vast experience throughout the industry, using the same substances, including at the league’s own expansion club.
We learnt that ASADA’s strongest case, again against the league’s own club, was not pursued suggesting the AFL’s corruption attempts were successful and severely tainting an allegedly independent government organisation.
We learnt of the incestuous nature of the pinnacle of society at the intersection of sport, business, politics and the media. The so-called Boys’ Club, the patriarchy, and its misogyny. Normally I am loathe to use such terms – I find the gendered language of feminism is divisive and unfairly tarnishes an entire gender while enforcing a debilitating and self-perpetuating victimhood culture onto the other – but in this case I’ll make an exception. It is hard to deny when industry heavyweights, nominally on opposite sides of the debate, flagrantly pronounce agreement on live radio that a man ought keep his woman on a leash.
We now know the disease. It is disseminated from on high by a corrupt few acting in self interest and waging personal vendettas. We know it well, we know the cause and the cure.
Yet, today, the patient died. A victim not of the disease itself, but of wilful neglect. The Essendon board and the few members of the media not audibly corrupt sat idly by like Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing treatment. They didn’t fight to correct the record. The didn’t offer the necessary support, and eventually Hird succumbed. His ‘resignation’ was weak, the kind of act expected from an inept club whose mismanagement failed the players and their coach. It was also gravely mistimed, either 3 years too late to minimise the fall out or 2 years too early to be certain of the decision. Now the one person with any integrity is no more and with him goes any hope of positive change, and the fading pulse of my interest.
The league and its media contingent will close the file and move on. The carriers of the disease will continue to infect our culture. The establishment will remain unchallenged and the media – both the outwardly vindictive and the cowardly silent – will remain unaccountable. The silent few are perhaps the greatest shame. They know who they are.
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” – John Stuart Mill