When NRL chief executive Dave Smith announced the Cronulla Sharks faced a $1 million fine and coach Shane Flanagan would be suspended for 12 months for charges relating to their 2011 supplements program, the decision bore some similarities to the way the AFL handled Essendon's supplement scandal.
But there were key differences.
Both codes, clubs and players wait nervously for the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) to finish its investigations into the Sharks’ and the Bombers’ programs, but experts say that the NRL and AFL approaches show that lessons have already been learned when it comes to sport governance at code and club level.
Unlike Essendon’s broad charge of "bringing the game into disrepute", Cronulla now has the chance to fight against specific preliminary charges
, including "exposing players to significant potential risks to health" and "exposing players to possible breaches of the NRL Anti-Doping Rules". The club, coach and former head of strength and conditioning Trent Elkin have until January 15 to respond and fight the charges and the penalties already announced.
The difference between the AFL’s settlement with Essendon and the NRL’s longer investigation and charges shows differences in the way the codes rules are written, says Dr Emma Sherry, senior lecturer at La Trobe University and the Centre for Sport and Social Impact. "The disrepute claim was the only claim the AFL could do without the ASADA charges ... This is telling about the different cultures of the codes, [the NRL] doesn’t have a disrepute code."
Sherry says the scandal has been a PR disaster for the AFL, but the NRL has taken less heat over the Sharks investigation. "There has been very little covered on the NRL. The governance really hasn’t had much focus -- the focus has more been on the coach, head of the strength and conditioning and the players who were found to have infringed. It’s really been focused on field, while Essendon has been focused off field."
Dr Jason Mazanov, senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, says the NRL had a "second bite at the cherry" after watching the AFL’s approach to Essendon’s sanctions, but little is different overall. "Have they really done anything more than the AFL has done by saying there are a few key players at each club that were a problem and targeted those people for sanctions? It hasn’t addressed the systemic issue that underlie why people use these drugs in these codes."
"People don’t like their kids getting injected with things."
Cronulla already has $3.5 million in debt, and even with $400,000 of the fine suspended, some believe it could put the club dangerously close to folding. If the Sharks contest the charges, they could be heard at the NRL Appeals Tribunal, in marked difference to Essendon and the AFL’s backroom negotiation of penalties.
Mazanov says this puts Cronulla in a good position: "The NRL is saying these are specifically what’s going on, now Cronulla has a strong basis on which to build its defence. But I do wonder if it’s all a bit of a fait accompli that the commissioner has already made his mind up."
Dr Matt Harvey, senior lecturer at Victoria University and sports law expert, is highly critical of the AFL’s handling of Essendon. "It was travesty of due process, the AFL was prosecutor, judge and jury." He points to the case of Essendon doctor Bruce Reid: "He did keep up his fight and the charges were dropped. AFL process didn’t stand up to judicial scrutiny."
There could be longer-term impacts for the codes and their brands, according to Dr John Fitzgerald, associate professor at the University of Melbourne. "It’s the competition between that code and other codes. I think that is where the damage will occur. When it comes to parents and their kids they may approach it somewhat differently, when they’re choosing to put them into rugby or football or soccer or different codes of rugby, parents will actually probably have a different view. That is somewhere where the code will feel damage. People don’t like their kids getting injected with things."
The supplement scandals won’t have the same impact on the perception of individual clubs, says Fitzgerald. "There is a kind of perversity to transgression in this environment, part of the expectation, part of the brand for a lot of clubs, is the capacity to fly as high as they can and push the limits as much as they can. Fans want clubs to be magical and to go beyond what’s possible. So when they do go beyond what’s possible it’s not inconsistent with the brand."
As far as governance across sporting codes and clubs goes, the experts say that a lot has been learned -- but there is still a long way to go. And as to club governance, no one will ever be "untouchable" again, according to Harvey.
"It showed the danger of having people who were untouchable. No one except the club doctor tentatively said something, no one felt able to say to [James] Hird, 'this is dodgy'."
Mazanov argues that the whole system of drug management in Australian sporting codes needs to be re-assessed, with focus on some of the benefits of medically supervised supplements. "We need to have much stronger players' unions. Anti-doping or drug management should be in the hands of people who play sport, not in the hands of people who manage it, the people who make money out of it. We need to be doing this in the interest of players."
Although the clubs and codes have come a long way from the "blackest day" in Australian sport back in February, all experts said that all the lessons hang on findings from ASADA, if and when they are handed down.