Despite the widespread shock and dismay that greeted the one-year ban handed out to the 2012 Essendon players by the international Court of Arbitration for Sport, could the AFL have actually dodged a bullet with this outcome?

Could the situation have been much worse in 2013 (i.e. wider than just Essendon) and the penalties consequently much wider and steeper?

To form a view on this possibility, it is helpful to look into the genesis of the Essendon saga.

In October 2008, Sports Medicine Australia (SMA) held its annual scientific conference at Hamilton Island — just three weeks after Geelong had been unexpectedly defeated by Hawthorn in the AFL grand final. Despite this defeat, Geelong was perceived as a leader in AFL excellence, having won the premiership by a record margin the previous year (and going on to win the 2009 premiership).

The conference was attended by 389 delegates, including a large proportion of the sports medicine and science support staff of AFL and NRL clubs: sports physicians and doctors, orthopaedic surgeons, physiotherapists, dietitians, podiatrists, psychologists — and exercise physiologists/sports scientists.

One of four keynote speakers at the conference, presenting a paper entitled Development, integration and technologies of a high performance unit — the management practices and the sports science technologies that enable Geelong Football Club’s High Performance Unit to monitor and develop the athletes to their full potential”, was the club’s high performance manager, Dean Robinson.

Robinson was later to become a figure of some note for his similar role at Essendon, where he was also known under the sobriquet “The Weapon”.

Robinson’s presentation captivated the audience with its detail and openness. His discussion ranged widely over player preparation and development, injury prevention and recovery.

Many in the audience were impressed by his claim (illustrated by specific examples of “popping hamstrings”) that so good was their performance monitoring, Geelong support staff could tell within seconds when a player had reached levels of risk of injury from over-exertion. This was used to develop appropriate training loads and control individual player’s match time.

One area of particular interest to the audience was his description of Geelong’s supplements program — tailored to the needs of every player on the list.

During the Q&A session following the presentation, the head doctor of one AFL team questioned the legality of the supplements program. Robinson refuted the suggestion of illegality and asserted that legality was maintained by careful individual monitoring to keep dosages to legal levels.

Another question went to the risks in his candour: “Aren’t you worried about giving away all your secrets to your competitors?”

Robinson’s response was that nothing he had presented was a secret. The art was in the ability to craft effective individual programs for every player supported by detailed performance monitoring.

Despite the note of humour injected into the proceedings by the question “if you are so clever, why can’t you still teach them to kick straight?” (Geelong’s inaccuracy in 2008 having contributed to their grand final loss), there is no doubt that Robinson’s presentation had a big impact on audience members involved in elite sport.

It is probable that the presentation marked the beginning — or certainly the escalation — of a “sports science arms race” between clubs in the AFL and NRL.

Robinson took advantage of his developing reputation to move from Geelong to the Gold Coast and then on to Essendon.

Such staff moves are common between elite clubs and this, plus the many opportunities for information exchange through venues such as the SMA conference, no doubt led to a proliferation of programs seeking to emulate Geelong’s success. Copying the ideas of successful clubs — in coaching, recruiting or other support areas — has always been a feature of elite sport.

Given the criticisms detailed about Essendon’s supplements program, it is possible that the pressures of this “arms race” led to a decline in the level of individual player monitoring, or an increase in the level of supplementation — or both?

The elephant in the room since 2012 has always been: “Who else?”

In 2012, AFL boss Andrew Demetriou complained about the increasing influence of the sports scientist (sneeringly referred to as “phys-edders”) at AFL clubs and the fact that they were “outranking doctors”, a theme he returned to in the speech announcing his resignation.

After the Essendon revelations, the AFL was certainly at pains to try and put the rogue sports science genie back in its bottle. The question has always been: “Did they?”

Regardless, the latest penalties for the Essendon players of 2012 means future activities will proceed with the maximum caution.

Peter Fray

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