Essendon chairman David Evans resigned last week as a result of Bombers coach James Hird releasing information about his Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) evidence in a bid to discredit the AFL’s CEO through allegations the AFL allegedly leaked information from the Australian Crime Commission(ACC) to the Essendon chairman.
Many at the club felt that throughout the ASADA investigation Evans betrayed Hird, when all Evans was doing was working with the AFL to resolve the drug scandal and protect the football club from too much pain.
Despite possible future AFL sanctions, the Essendon faithful are solid in support of Hird even as the club disintegrates around them, inclusive of the recent departures of CEO Ian Robson, media manager Elizabeth Lukin and senior staff. James Hird, a Brownlow medallist and AFL hall of famer, has since 2011 become increasingly obsessive about restoring the football club to its former glory at any cost. Hird believes he did nothing wrong by pushing players to the edge, as he went on the offensive this week, probably, in the worst case scenario after the ASADA evidence is released, to shore up a trade off with the AFL for him to continue coaching.
However, former Essendon fitness advisor Dean AKA ‘The Weapon’ Robinson’s startling evidence in a tell-all interview on television earlier this week, on alleged conversations between James Hird and the club’s biochemist Steve Danks, lends substance to the allegations that the Essendon coach, together with Danks, the Bombers Football General Manager Danny Corcoran and Dean Robinson, were the key figures in the creation of the club’s high performance supplements program.
Hird’s supporters – including many from the media who idolise him – are closing ranks and refuse to acknowledge that Hird (who on his own admission was injected with a banned substance more than once), as head coach, may have overseen the implementation of an irresponsible performance enhancing drug program while not fully disclosing to players what ‘substances’ they were given and their potential long term effects. The only Bombers player not to sign the waiver form and refuse the supplement injection program was David Zaharakis, who was on the long term injury list last year.
Paul Little, the long time Toll Holdings CEO has now taken over the chairmanship of the club from Evans. He is a strong supporter of James Hird and a tough business operator, determined to take on ASADA, WADA and the AFL to protect the club, coach and team. But the ‘stand by Hird’ hubris may be curtailed if the prevailing ASADA evidence is so compelling that to refute the facts and not accept sanctions would be neglecting diligent corporate governance. Taking the hit and rebuilding from the ashes may be the only choice available to the club.
Hird’s surprise broadside this week on the AFL’s CEO Andrew Demetriou, who will be a key figure on the commission in judgment of the Essendon Football Club in a couple of weeks, was a desperate act by Hird that carried no substance, alienating him from the AFL hierarchy.
To make things worse, evidence has emerged that Hird has, in text communication with Danks, vilified the Collingwood, West Coast and Hawthorn football clubs by suggesting they were ‘unfairly’ biologically advanced and concluded that Essendon had no option but to create its own clandestine high-tech supplements program to succeed, with the catch cry ‘Whatever it takes’. In not so many words James Hird fully supported the supplement scheme referred to by Danks as the ‘black-ops’ program. On this evidence alone James Hird should have stood down from the coaching position until ASADA completed its findings, but almost in denial of any wrong-doing he chose not to.
Yesterday, Hird engaged high profile lawyer Julian Burnside QC to represent him in possibly seeking an injunction to stop the ASADA report ever being made public, pitting himself directly against the AFL’s transparency policy.
In handing down potential punishment, the AFL will have to take into consideration that Essendon is no stranger to breaking the AFL’s regulations, having done so in the past. The Bombers were found guilty of salary cap breaches in 1999, when a joint AFL and Australian Taxation Office (ATO) investigation into Essendon’s finances found the club had systematically breached the salary cap to the tune of over half a million dollars between 1991 and 1996.
The Essendon Football Club to this day is the only club to have cheated the salary cap in a premiership winning year (1993). In a soft punishment, the AFL decided not to strip the Bombers of their premiership win, but instead fined them and denied the club their first two 1999 national draft picks as well as shutting them out of the pre-season and rookie drafts.
The dynamics of the current drug scandal have twisted and turned in the last few days, especially in the shadow of the impending two-year suspension of St Kilda player Ahmed Saad, who this week proved positive on banned substances. The AFL has been placed in a position where it cannot tolerate any further assault on its integrity and will have to make some hard decisions on Essendon and their personnel or lose its credibility completely.
ASADA’s investigation into the Bomber’s supplements program will be handed down next week. Reputations or not, a ‘soft solution’ is not an option anymore. Draconian punitive measures from the AFL will await the guilty, and if the punishment is considered inadequate or soft by ASADA and WADA, then the drug watchdogs have the power to overrule any decision and impose harder, more austere penalties. ‘Whatever it takes’ shall haunt the Essendon Football Club forever.