In round four last year I was happy to pick up a “Stand by Hird” sign from a fellow Essendon supporter outside Etihad stadium before the game. What a great initiative, I thought — the fans getting behind the club in a tough time. At that point I still hoped that somehow the peptides scandal would all blow over and the evidence would show that Hird had done nothing wrong. Because he couldn’t do anything wrong — not Hirdy.
My formative years as an Essendon member were shaped with James Hird as captain of the club. He was the embodiment of putting one’s body on the line, knowing exactly where to be and who to kick to, and best of all, he was a gentleman — we weren’t like those thugs at other clubs. The problem is that the last two years have proven that Essendon is just like every other club — and, in some ways, much worse. Premature and misguided forgiveness of the golden boy has led the club to this point — if it were any other coach at any other club, the narrative would be vastly different.
The Essendon peptides scandal and resulting Federal Court case against the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority represents everything that is wrong with the influence of boys’ clubs and big business in sport. In 2012, the club was so poorly governed that 34 players were injected with substances that are most likely illegal and possibly harmful. Just as James Hird has backed away from his claims that he took full responsibility for what went on at the club in 2012, Essendon chairman Paul Little has backed away from the claim that the players were not administered illegal or harmful drugs; now it is couched with “with all available evidence”.
The federal court ruled emphatically last month that ASADA’s investigation into Essendon’s supplements program was lawful, and Essendon chose not to appeal. Hird’s announcement on Wednesday that he would personally appeal the ruling (he was a separate party in the case) has shown that his priority is his own reputation and not the club’s. Hird may still believe that his appeal is in the best interests of the players, but what they really need is an end in sight. Before Wednesday, there was a sense that closure was possible, not an ideal result, but closure. Now the road ahead is unclear again. If he wants to pursue this in the court when the players have reportedly asked him not to, he has to do that as James Hird the individual, not James Hird the Essendon coach.
Often when fans of a football club call for the resignation or sacking of the coach, it is in anger and frustration. The mood among many Essendon fans is one of disappointment and resignation — anger and frustration over this never-ending scandal passed months ago. It’s necessary for Hird to resign, but that doesn’t make it something fans look forward to. He was a role model and symbol, yes, but before this he had shown signs that he was growing into a good coach with the potential to make the club successful on the field again. Essendon would have made finals in 2013 if it weren’t for the penalties meted out by the AFL Commission. The fairytale narrative of the third-generation player grown to premiership captain will not conclude with Hird as premiership coach. But football isn’t made for fairytales, even if the fans and media like to think so.
Professional sports clubs around the country have watched this scandal as an example of how not to push the boundaries when it comes to performance enhancement. It should also be viewed as a lesson in how governance and corporate culture should be managed. No individual is bigger than the club, and it’s not possible to spend your way out of a scandal.
Yesterday and today, the Melbourne dailies published double spreads on Hird’s coaching future. Wednesday night’s winner of the club’s best and fairest award, Dyson Heppell, was mentioned as an afterthought. Among all the reporting of appeals and legal technicalities, it is also almost forgotten that there are still 34 young men who don’t know what the future holds for them professionally and what side effects these substances could have on their bodies in the future. An appeal puts their answers even further away.