James Hird

The Essendon drugs saga has enveloped the AFL season like a vampire squid. So much so that The Age and Herald Sun appear to have given up talking about the game itself. While the actions of embattled Essendon coach James Hird and his team of acolytes were no doubt dubious, the AFL’s handling of the matter has been a textbook case of clueless management and public relations naivety.

In April, the AFL’s highly paid chief executive, Andrew Demetriou, stood beside Justice Minister Jason Clare and Kate Lundy when the pair declared the 12-month Australian Crime Commission findings to be the “darkest day in Australian sport” (poignantly, both Clare and Lundy were later demoted from their roles after former prime minister Julia Gillard was dumped).

That was Demetriou’s first mistake. The so-called “darkest day” has turned out to be a fizzer. The alleged links to organised crime (which added a suitable Underbelly aspect to the entire charade) have, thus far, been non-existent. As was the so-called “widespread use of illegal drugs” and “evidence of match fixing”. The scale of those allegations demanded perp walks and charges — so far, the only identified culprit has been Essendon, which self-reported and whose charges are those that relate to governance practises about questionable, rather than specifically illegal, drugs.

What Demetriou and the AFL should have done was quietly investigate the Essendon charges, without the enormous public scrutiny (and the battalion of lawyers and public relations managers).  They would have then determined that Essendon’s actions, while perhaps not technically illegal (there still remains significant doubt as to whether the oligomeric peptide, AOD9604, is actually a banned substance or not). The investigation would have determined that Essendon’s crimes were largely governance faults and acts of stupidity — few would claim that the struggling Essendon actually benefited from its idiotic supplements regimen. A significant fine, perhaps the loss of a draft pick or two and maybe premiership points, could have been determined. Case closed, everyone could have moved on.

It is ironic that the main charges levelled against Hird, as well as assistant Mark Thompson and doctor Bruce Reid, was that of bringing the game into disrepute when much of the disrepute has been wrought by those carrying out what has become a trial by media.

Alongside the AFL, the other critical player in the saga has been chief Fairfax football writer and Channel Nine panellist Caroline Wilson. Wilson, when at her best, is one of Australia’s finest sports writers. At her worst, Wilson too often is captured by her sources, willing to rent her journalistic credibility to those feeding her information.

For six months Wilson has been a virtual public relations mouthpiece for the AFL, maintaining a highly critical stance towards Essendon (and especially Hird). Perhaps coincidentally, Wilson (and The Age’s crack investigative duo, Richard Barker and Nick McKenzie) have received a constant flow of leaks, all of which happen to be detrimental towards Hird and Essendon.

Wilson has called for the sacking of Hird since the original allegations were levelled. It appears that his resilience has spurred Wilson to greater vitriolic heights, with every week he continues in the job appearing to be a personal slight on Wilson. Since the story broke in February, Wilson has penned 64 articles about Essendon — that’s more than two each week (more than a third of all Wilsons’ articles were about the issue). Virtually every article has taken a negative view on Essendon, ranging from polite requests — “Right thing to do is for Hird to step down” — to the more critical — “Bombers a shambles“; “Blind faith in Hird must fray” — to the blatant leaks — “AFL warned Hird against peptides” — to the downright insistent — “Supplement saga: Heads must roll“; “Blind pride drove coach’s denial and bodies piled up“.

Even the most devoted Essendon supporter wouldn’t deny some at the club, including Hird, have acted in a reckless manner — but their actions have since been dwarfed by the sheer incompetence in handling the matter by Demetriou and his followers, including general counsel Andrew Dillon and pugnacious in-house media executive Patrick Keane. From the initial charges to the lengthy investigation to the leaked (and poorly written) report.

The victims of the AFL’s incompetence are not necessarily Essendon insiders, many of whom are far from innocent, but the Essendon members and supporters who just want to watch their team play football. Instead, they witnessed a sideshow from a publicity-hungry AFL executive, a derelict AFL commission and a complicit mainstream media.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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