Born-to-rule Bombers glimpse unprivileged reality


Essendon Bombers logo'The drugs in football affair illustrates what happens when the interests of one particular team are put ahead of care for its players and for the competition of which it forms part. Eventually the group allegiance crumbles as individuals look out for themselves.' Andrew Hamilton's succinct summation is one of the best observations to have emerged from the thickening miasma of evidence, speculation, rumour and point-counter-point surrounding the Essendon Football Club since it 'self-reported' its supplements program at the start of the 2013 season.

Group allegiance has indeed crumbled, some individuals are certainly looking out for themselves, and the players — caught in the middle, grievously uncared for in the past under what the Switkowski report called a regime of pharmacological experimentation, worn down week after week by pressures, accusations and stresses they are ill-equipped to cope with — are now playing without heart or firm intent. As Steve Waugh has memorably remarked, you don't lose innate ability from one week or one month to the next, but, under certain kinds of conditions, you can lose form. For the Essendon footballers, the conditions have now bottomed out.

I am an avid, reasonably well informed fan of the game but no more than an interested and slightly bemused onlooker when it comes to understanding the complexities of a catastrophe like this drug scandal. I don't pretend to have the insights of the many experienced and accomplished sports journalists who have written thousands of words on this sorry business. For a disengaged onlooker like me, there are merely small but possibly potent straws in the controversial winds. One of these is a statement Essendon coach James Hird has made several times, namely that Essendon has a 'right' to play finals.

Now, of course, we know what he means on the face of it: simply, that Essendon have at the moment won enough games to qualify to play finals in September. It's a curious way to phrase it though, and Hird's emphatic claim of a 'right' runs deeper than mere statistics.

When you wed that word 'right' to Hird's often proclaimed passion for the club and his aspiration when chosen as coach to put Essendon back where it 'belonged', 'right' starts to assume the force of due privilege, a status not available to other clubs. Those who have convinced themselves they are in the nature of things privileged rarely tolerate much opposition. But a football competition thrives on opposition so, if you are privileged in that competition as of right, you expect to win, and do almost anything to ensure you win. That is your right.

It's not new, the conviction that this or that team is a natural leader, an almost invariable winner and, therefore, in a vague unstated way, beyond the laws governing the rest.

Jack Elliott, as president of the Carlton Football Club, poured scorn on what he called the 'miserable' history of a club like Footscray, and accused Essendon of cheating to win the 2000 Premiership on the eve of which (1999) Essendon was fined $276,274 for salary cap rorting and lost first and second round draft picks. In November 2002, on Elliott's own watch at Carlton, salary cap rorting cost the club $930,000 and crucial draft picks (including stars-in-waiting Brendan Goddard and Daniel Wells), blows from which the club in the view of some is still recovering.

In an eerie symmetry, AFL Commission chairman Ron Evans, father of recently fallen Essendon president David Evans, described Carlton's behaviour 'as a deliberate, elaborate and sophisticated scheme to break the player payment rules. Carlton members and supporters ought to feel betrayed by the actions of their club.' The scandal ended Elliott's tumultuous presidency during which at one point, asked if he had any regrets, he said his only regret was that Carlton didn't win the premiership every year — a flippant version of the born-to-rule syndrome.

Suddenly, a few weeks ago, like a marginal note to the central chaotic supplements plot, came the case of St Kilda small forward Ahmed Saad. Saad, an exemplary character, a practicing Muslim and an AFL nominated multicultural ambassador, tested positive to a drug banned only in competition after he incautiously accepted a hydrating drink from a friend.

What was interesting about this case was the precision, speed and certainty with which everyone — media, AFL, and pundits of one kind or another — were able to pronounce upon and predict Saad's probable two year ban. In what was so clearly an innocent mistake by a fine young athlete there was no talk about 'rights' or waiting until 'the truth' comes out or the deployment of heavy hitting legal minds or the threat of endless court action. Certainly Saad is a much smaller fish in the poisoned AFL pool, but should that matter?

Well, it does of course. St Kilda and, to take another example, Footscray (the Western Bulldogs) do not have 'a right'. St Kilda is one of the oldest clubs in the AFL but thin on success; the Dogs are the face of the underprivileged (Melbourne) west but equally light on the trophy front. Neither club is fashionable and their best days, while duly noted, are quickly forgotten.

No one connected with either club would claim it was 'the greatest club in Australia' as James Hird said of Essendon on Tuesday morning (13 August), while awaiting yet another AFL 'announcement' that failed to materialise at a proposed time. He meant it — another indication of how far rampant ambition and a conviction of entitlement, of having a 'right', has taken him from harsh reality.

If however — as Essendon FC remains intransigent and in denial — Hird needs a glimpse of harsh, unprivileged reality, Ahmed Saad could probably accommodate him.

Brian Matthews headshotBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Essendon, AFL, ASADA, drugs in sport, James Hird



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If one overlooks the plethora of ghost-written, tediously predictable biographies of recently retired AFL players, the literature of our great Australian game is notable for its quality rather than its quantity. At the head of the list of those whose literary contibutions enhance the AFL's culture is Brian Matthews' This article is all the evidence needed to substaniate this claim.

Grebo | 14 August 2013  

Ahmed Saad seems to have considered the only thing worth losing was his honour which he kept by his exemplary behaviour in unfortunate circumstances. I wonder if the likes of James Hird at Essendon know the meaning of that word? Jack Clarke would weep.

Edward Fido | 14 August 2013  

In case there are some readers outside Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, who have just read Brian Matthews article and are wondering why it has appeared in an on-line publication by the Australian Jesuits which claims to be informed by the values of Jesuit spirituality and in particular the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, let me say just this. In Melbourne Australian Rules Football serves as a form of pagan religion in an increasingly secularist and consumerist society. It has its gods. In fact one of its most brilliant players was nicknamed "God". He in turn produced a Sun God in another state of being(Queensland). All the other paraphernalia of primitive religions decorate the game. Rivalry between fissiparous tribes is temporally resolved in a fight to the death in a Spring festival each September. The coach of the winning team becomes High Priest for the whole of Summer, after which the mandala of success is wiped away and the whole ritual begins again just when the crops of Autumn (pre-season and player trading) have been gathered into the barns. But woe betide the tribal leader who condones the use of Genetically Modified products!

Uncle Pat | 14 August 2013  

If only Australians were as passionate about the politics of social/justice issues in REAL life, we'd be living in a different society. But I guess sports serves as a escape from the reality of our harsh and brutish world/society - especially now that the issues of the wider world are more and more trickling into our lucky country (ie asylum seekers)

AURELIUS | 14 August 2013  

This is moralising gone mad. Not quite the at the level of the ASADA effort, in which it grandly initiated its ‘investigation’ (apparently able to be judge as well as prosecutor) with the declaration that this was the blackest day in Australian sporting history. (Evidence since is of ASADA having specifically cleared Essendon’s use of the supplements; and its draft report apparently does not censure any player who used these supplements.) It is more likely that, rather than the far-fetched ‘born-to-rule’ syndrome alleged, Hird’s reference to Essendon’s ‘right’ to play finals expresses his absolute belief that no moral or legal rules were broken. There seems to be plenty of evidence, including of his consistent concern for legality and player welfare, to support this. If he is correct, there are no grounds for comparison with the salary cap infringements cited. Hird’s comment that Essendon was the ‘the greatest club in Australia’ was made with a wry grin! And it is extremely unjust to build up such a virtuous image of Saad to damn Hird. Peoples’ reputations, and careers, are an important issue of justice. The secular kangaroo court is already pious enough. Let’s distinguish ourselves by first waiting to hear all the evidence.

david moloney | 14 August 2013  

Who cares, AFL is rubbish anyway.

peter Nies | 14 August 2013  

Fascinating, Brian, to a desultory sports watcher like me (don't ask which team I support because I'd name at least three and one might be the New York Yankees). But the human stories interest me and you tell them so well. The entitlement virus seems to have run amok through Australian cricket, football and tennis (I except Sam Stosur from this - how good was it watching her beat Serena Williams?). Are we big enough to take a really hard look at ourselves do you reckon? Hope so. Thanks – from Morag

Morag Fraser | 15 August 2013  

A thought provoking article that gives a good analysis on the Essendon fiasco, highlighting the Club's emphasis on rights and privilege.

Frank Hornby | 15 August 2013  

Who outside of Melbourne cares? I dont recall any coverage of the league scandals outside of Melbourne.

Bill | 16 August 2013  

I think the only comment near the mark is that of David Maloney who suggested waiting for the evidence. There is always hyperbole in expressed support for Clubs. Just listen to the club songs starting at Geelong “We are Geelong. The greatest team of all.” My good friend Brian has thus woven a whole carpet from very few threads. No one has commented on the peculiar way the whole drama has unfolded. It started off with a telegram type message from ASADA “Start worrying. Letter follows!” and an invitation to players to turn themselves in. Now 6 months later, after full co-operation from Essendon, there is a 400 page report which inter alia is reported to say no drug infringement has been found by Essendon players. It would be interesting to see the basis for charging Essendon coaches etc for bringing the game into disrepute. The basis for any such charge would have to be that the program used illegal drugs, not just supplements, and that knowingly. So I join David Maloney in suggesting we wait for the facts to come out. And as Parthian shot at Peter Nies, I would note that AFL is by far the biggest sport in Australia and its attendances exceed that of the next 4 put together, as does its club membership

David Goss | 17 August 2013  

I like Brian am an observer of the long running investigation into the Essendon Football Club's " Supplements " program and the charges against key Persons of the EFC . I am not an Essendon supporter but my wife is . I am of the opinion that we should all wait till the investigation is complete and charges are negotiated or adjudicated before any punishment is meted out . I do think Brian's development of James Hird's statement that Essendon have a right to play finals to one of unrealistic entitlement is at best naive . Essendon have the right to play finals because they have earned that right in competition with the other teams in the league . James Hird has expressed a passion for his club , a subjective pride in the place he thinks it holds in the community as so many of us do with our own clubs . I would suggest Brian wait for due process to take place with both the EFC and Ahmed Saad .

Leon Daphne | 18 August 2013  

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