The real scandal at Essendon


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 supplements - to gain an advantage over their competitors. The uncomfortable issue this scandal raises for the AFL and other sporting codes is whether Essendon’s actions were an extension of current practices, more than they were any kind of exception.

The affair highlights the dangers when sport becomes a contest for scientific superiority. When bodies become machines to be optimised, it’s all too easy for clubs to lose sight of the fact that they are dealing with human beings. The AFL Players Association has said that it will only be through ‘good luck’, rather than prudent management, if the Essendon players escape negative health repercussions from the supplements they received. With sports science only just beginning to understand the long-term health impact of concussion and other injuries sustained on the field, now players also have to worry about the long-term impact of what clubs are doing to them off the field as well.

The challenge for sporting bodies is to find a way to end the cold war of sports science before it causes more irretrievable harm to players. Firm lines need to be drawn around what clubs can and cannot do in player development and care. If those lines cut out activities not deemed to be ‘performance enhancing’ by WADA, but which might place undue risks on the health of competitors, then so be it. The issue that guides sports needs to move beyond questions of cheating to questions of player welfare. For one club to gain an advantage over other clubs by cheating is shameful. But for a club to put its own players in harm’s way is unforgiveable.  

Professional sport these days is a lucrative business, and winning brings success off the field as well. That logic would dictate players and teams push the rules to their limits in order to gain an advantage over one another – as evidenced by Essendon’s unfortunate slogan for 2013: ‘Whatever it takes’. However, the public’s hunger for sport isn’t just about tasting success. It’s also about how that success is achieved. If success comes at the cost of players’ long-term wellbeing, the sour taste it leaves in the mouths of fans will mean their appetite for sport will start to wane. 

Michael McVeigh headshotMichael McVeigh is senior editor at Jesuit Communications.

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, James Hird, Essendon, AFL, football, sport, drugs



submit a comment

Existing comments

The Club has certainly failed us at Essendon but my confidence in the integrity of James Hird was boosted by Julian Burnside's statement in an email: In my 37 years at the bar I am yet to meet a more honourable and brave person than James Hird. Mistakes Yes, cheating, No!

Patricia Taylor | 29 August 2013  

Club Doctor/Sports Scientist not 'guilty' - Hird accepted their advice...?

Helen Martin | 29 August 2013  

Well written Michael - and insightful. Are you one of the AFL McVeighs? I comment in Mike Bowden's ES contribution upon the Liam Jurrah/NT detention issue, that their spiralling rollout of personal and society deterioration all happens as if it has its own energy or dynamic. So - if we are to believe as much as has presently been acknowledged - did the Essendon "sorry saga?" Human contribution was kind of incidental or secondary. "We did noithing wrong", save for carefully worded and ambivalent remorse, seemingly still is the mantra.

Peter Wearne | 29 August 2013  

The real issue is that professional sport is totally consumed by the ethos of the capitalist system and the moral philosophy of the end justifying the means by 'pushing the boundaries' concerning various rules and laws. It is also bemusing that the various sports bodies and the sports anti-doping authorities are incompetent and twenty years behind the pharmaceutical companies and biochemists. I believe that there should be no restrictions on the use of any substance or drug in sport provided that all substances are approved by a rigorous process of health safety by the Department of Health and also that all substances are administered under strict supervision by sports medicine doctors.

Mark Doyle | 29 August 2013  

The real scandal in all sport today? Too much money for doing bugger-all other than playing a game and never experiencing the discipline of earning from a proper job requiring responsibility.

john frawley | 29 August 2013  

Should my son be an Essendon player,I would have a Pet Scan and rigid medical and in the future for any sign of carcinogesic effects of these "Injections".

John M Costigan | 29 August 2013  

I remember a time when coaches were selected not just on their football skills and reputations as great sportsmen, but on their natural ability to communicate and look after young men between the ages of 18 and 28. Coaches like Bob Rose at Collingwood, Norm Smith at Melbourne and other greats took responsibility for the men in their charge. This meant working with their psychology and emotions as well as their physical abilities. It is this loss of respect for the players as vulnerable humans that is very much at issue in all of this torrid business. The fantasy land of modern football has an impossibly dangerous effect on young men who are expected to deliver results that are at odds with human capacity. That people refer to James Hird as a ‘deity’ is all part of the problem; he’s not a deity. When the clubmen and trainers and coaches are infected with this same false hope of living out a fantasy, we get what is happening in the clubs today, and not just at Essendon. It’s unreal. Couple this with the business mentality that runs the game, where the bottom line is a flag and big returns, and you have a recipe for disaster. Even the idea of fining a club 2 million dollars is a punishment thought up by business men in competition with one another. Object: destroy the competition. In the days of Rose and Smith, such a fine would have done just that, destroyed the club.

PHILIP HARVEY | 29 August 2013  

In an issue such as the Essendon "supplements program" it is tempting to jump from the particular to the general and condemn all professional sport, where the "winning at all costs" philosophy leads down the path of moral corruption and the artifical/chemical boosting of athletic capacity. I suppose the East Germany approach in the 1980s was the clearest indication of what could be achieved by chemical means and state sponsorship. But instead of condemning it outright certain governments, some sports administrators and certain athletes opted for the oldest competitive compromise - "if you can't beat'em, join'em", Not publicly, of course, but in deep dark secrecy. However, this approach could not dodge the scrutiny of advances in IT and clinical research. Someone always goes too far - e.g. Lance Armstrong - and corruption and malpractice are exposed. Why footballers, who train and exercise their bodies to such an extent that they have minimal adipose tissue should allow themselves to be injected with Anti-Obesity Drugs defies my comprehension. But then I have never aspired to be an AFL (The Greatest Game Of All) footballer, much less a Premiership player. Maybe James Hird ambitioned this for his trusting players. Alas, ill-weaved ambition indeed!

Uncle Pat | 29 August 2013  

Having "negotiated a punishment"(!?) for Essendon the AFL needs to get rid of their 3 strikes drug policy to prove they actually care about cheating and harm to atheletes. Lots of young athletes on the world stage only make one mistake and are banned for 2 years. They must think the AFL don't really care about drug cheating even after the Essendon debacle.

Terri Turnbull | 30 August 2013  

One thing that puzzles me, and it's something that doesn't seem to be mentioned much, is that it was the Essendon cllub that notified the AFL about this whole business. Why?

Gavan | 30 August 2013  

History gives perspective. About the biggest drug and sport scandal in the 1970s was marijuana. That maverick genius footballer Brent Crosswell (Carlton, North Melbourne, Melbourne) wrote an article in an alternative newspaper where he lauded the effects of cannabis, fully inhaled before a match, as means to improved performance on field. He described in detail how it helped his game at Glenferrie Oval (home of the Hawks), especially during dull patches of play when the ball was at the other end of the ground when he could watch the trains on the embankment coming in and out of Glenferrie Station. Obviously the drug enhanced his sense of time passing. Crosswell may have admitted to taking an illegal substance but he was a hard man to argue with, after all he was instrumental in winning flags under Ronald Dale Barassi at two different clubs. Barassi no doubt smiled at his protégé’s indiscretions: they used to play chess together every Friday night. Between Crosswell and the modern game is the changing of rules to fit live televised football. When the game is played to suit the expectations of entertainment rather than the rules of the sport, what happened at Essendon is inevitable. One can only imagine what Crosswell would have written about being injected against his will.

PHILIP HARVEY | 01 September 2013  

Similar Articles

Neoliberalism in the swinging outer suburbs

  • Luke Williams
  • 03 September 2013

The outer suburban marginal seats will almost certainly swing to the Coalition on Saturday. I'm sure many of the Left intelligentsia think they have the reasons for this all worked out: voters in the outer suburbs are uneducated, 'aspirational', cashed-up bogans who only care about their mortgages, negating their working-class origins and keeping out asylum seekers. As a swinging voter from one such electorate, I can tell you the reality is not that simple.


Credibility at stake for restrained religious media

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 05 September 2013

In Australia, September is the month of religious media conferences. This year church media, particularly Catholic media, face a growing challenge: how to deal with bad news about the Church, especially stories regarding sexual abuse and failures of governance. Pope Francis' own style of communication suggests an alternative purpose and approach that such media might adopt.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up