In January, the AFL’s anti-doping tribunal resumed at Melbourne’s County Court. The tribunal, triggered by an initial investigation by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) in 2013, will determine if the Essendon Football Club’s 2011-12 supplements program breached the league’s doping code.
If found guilty, 34 players, both past and present, could be banned for up to 12 months. Irrespective of the tribunal’s outcome, the scandal – now entering its third year – has exposed the rotten underbelly of Australian sport. Even if it jeopardises the health of its players, clubs will push whatever boundaries they can get away with to achieve on field success and the financial windfalls that accompanies it.
The scandal first came to light in February 2013 when the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) ended its year long investigation, Project Aperio, into the major sporting codes. Supported by ASADA, the investigation revealed an epidemic of substance abuse, match fixing and gambling, even links to organised crime in both the AFL and NRL.
During its 2011-12 supplements program, Project Aperio alleged that Essendon injected its players with a cocktail of drugs, including banned substances like thymosin beta 4. The side affects of these drugs were unknown.
In the aftermath of the investigation, Essendon’s sports scientist Stephen Dank, high performance manager Dean Robinson, and CEO Ian Robson resigned in disgrace. Even though Robson’s replacement, Paul Little, denied Essendon were “drug cheats”, the AFL imposed a number of sanctions on the club. Essendon was banned from the 2013 finals series, fined $2 million and stripped of its first and second round picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts.
Coach James Hird was suspended for a year, assistant coach Mark Thompson was fined $30,000, and football manager Danny Corcoran was banned from working with any AFL club for six months.
In July 2014, James Hird launched the first of two appeals in the Federal Court challenging the legality of ASADA’s investigation, both of which failed. The problem of doping, however, is systemic. The ASADA report also revealed that 12 of the 18 clubs ran programs with “medium or high levels of supplement use” and “lacked a single point of accountability”.
The fact that professional sport is primarily played to make a profit is what lies at the heart of the Essendon doping scandal. Like everything else, sport does not exist in a vacuum. It remains part of the society that created it. Nor is it immune from the economic and social processes of the times.
Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, the AFL has adopted a raft of reforms that have been bound up with corporate sponsorship and broadcast deals. Every aspect of the game is seen by its big business backers as a commodity.
Despite recording a profit of $16.6 million in 2014, on top of record revenue of $446 million, the AFL operates in such a way that forces all clubs to compete for corporate sponsorships, ticket sales and memberships. This has allowed the gap between the richest and the poorest clubs to grow. In January the AFL revealed that the wealth gap between the richest and poorest clubs – Collingwood and St Kilda – was and extraordinary $5.6 million.
The saga surrounding Essendon highlights the need to remove the profit motive from sport. The allure of success, both on and off the field, has meant that clubs are driven to push whatever limits possible to achieve it – even if it puts the player’s health at risk. Breaking the corrupting power of big money in sport is part of the same struggle against corporate interests more generally.
By Conor Flynn