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The real scandal at Essendon

  • 29 August 2013

This week, the Essendon Football Club has been handed down one of the harshest punishments in the history of Australian sport. 

The club’s supplement program in 2012 might not have set out to contravene the drug code, but it did aim to stretch sports science as far as it legally could.

The punishments were handed out to the club because their experimental efforts put the welfare of players in jeopardy, and because the club could not account for all the substances the players had received, meaning they could not rule out that the players had received substances banned under the WADA sporting code. 

Essendon coach James Hird continues to deny that he has done anything wrong, while admitting that things happened at the club that ‘shouldn’t have happened’. Most of the club’s negotiations with the AFL over the last two weeks centered on the club’s desire not to be labelled ‘cheats’, to maintain their integrity as competitors. Very little commentary has come out of the club about what the affair has done to their integrity as stewards of the players under their care. 

The most significant moment during the last few months, and arguably the turning point for Essendon’s case, was the phone call by the distraught mother of one of the players to Triple M in Melbourne. This mother – identified only as ‘Sarah’ – pointed to the real issue at the heart of the scandal and shattered Essendon’s defence that what it had done was no different to other clubs seeking an advantage through sports science. Others might have been angry that Essendon was trying to gain an unfair advantage on the field by trying out untested supplements, but the real scandal was that the club had treated its players like ‘guinea pigs’.  

Reading through the substantial charge sheet released by the AFL, a picture emerges of a club that felt it was in a cold war of sports science – a war that it was losing to other clubs. Text messages from sports scientist Stephen Dank to Hird talk about the practices of other clubs, justifying Essendon’s efforts to push the boundaries themselves in order to keep pace. Other clubs have denied that their practices stray outside what's acceptable to anti-doping bodies or put players in jeopardy in any way, but there is no denying that other clubs are using legal forms of sports science - including injections, creams and powder