Regardless of the upcoming Federal Court decision in the Essendon drugs matter (the first in what looks like being a series of legal challenges), the reputations of the AFL and its highly paid former CEO Andrew Demetriou appear tarnished.
It hadn’t been a pleasant year for AFL House, even without the Essendon scandal. Crowds in Victoria, the game’s heartland, have dropped precipitously — largely due to AFL hubris in scheduling matches at unpopular times and increasing entrance costs. New AFL boss Gillon McLachlan appears to have recognised the AFL has a serious problem and has dubbed 2015 the “year of the fan” — as if to say that in every other year the AFL’s most important stakeholders are irrelevant. That’s a bit like Myer dubbing next year the “year of the customer”.
And then there are the Essendon revelations, and what followed. Leaving aside the substantive issues being considered by the Federal Court (which involve the side issue of whether the joint AFL-Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority investigation was lawful), there has been evidence submitted that casts significant doubt over Demetriou’s statements.
Specifically, questions have arisen around what occurred at a meeting between representatives of the AFL executive, ASADA and the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) on January 31 last year and Demetriou’s subsequent conversation with then-Essendon president David Evans. Last month, Demetriou told 3AW that:
“There absolutely was a discussion that I had with David because I’d spoken to him throughout the day, and I did ring him that night because I was returning his phone call. But it wasn’t tipping off David Evans that Essendon was the club [being investigated by the ACC] because we didn’t know who the club was …
“[I was asked] whether I tipped off David Evans before they came forward … and I stated yesterday categorically, as I did on previous occasions, that I did not. And I did not for one simple reason: I didn’t know who the club in question was.”
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But under oath on Tuesday in the Federal Court, Essendon coach James Hird claimed that Demetriou told Evans Essendon was under investigation. That was confirmed in notes of the meeting submitted to the Federal Court by former ASADA boss Aurora Andruska, who said McLachlan had asked “is it Essendon?” to which an ACC representative said, “say no more”. Demetriou is alleged to have replied, “not a surprise”.
It may have been the alleged content of the conversation between Demetriou and Evans that led Evans to the now ill-fated decision for Essendon to self-report. The decision to confess meant that Essendon lost all leverage in future negotiations and is understood to be the reason Evans later resigned as president of the club.
Hird was last year suspended for 12 months for bringing the game into disrepute after the AFL obtained information from the ASADA probe. While few have sympathy for Hird and Essendon given the substance program at the club in 2011 and 2012, it appears that the governance procedures in place at the AFL were poor and that it sought to achieve its ends through any means, rather than through appropriate procedures.
There is further context between the key players in the saga. David Evans’ father, Ron Evans, was the former multimillionaire chairman of the AFL Commission who appointed Demetriou as CEO of the AFL. Gillon McLachlan — who was plucked from obscurity as a management consultant at Accenture and dropped into a plum AFL role, and was this year appointed as Demetriou’s replacement — is married to Laura Blythe, the daughter of the late Brian Blythe, Ron Evans’ long-time business partner (not only at Spotless Services, but also in many private businesses like Ted’s Cameras). To add a further element, Brian Blythe sold his Toorak mansion Coonac to Paul Little, Essendon’s current president, for $16 million in 2002.
If the AFL’s governance and integrity wasn’t under serious question, it’s worth remembering that the genesis of that infamous press conference attended by the justice minister, the sports minister, Demetriou and other sports bosses was to address allegations of organised crime infiltrating sport. Not only the use of drugs, but also allegations of money laundering and match fixing (the ACC claimed at the time that it was investigating at least one real case of match fixing). Last week Demetriou was appointed a director of Crown, the largest gaming company in Australia, less than two months after resigning as CEO of the AFL.
Not a great look.