It was only a matter of time but it is clear that the anger and name-calling that accompanies many parts of the Essendon drugs issue has made its way onto the Almanac pages.
Whilst I have played a (minor and occasional) part in expressing my opinions and disgust at various parts of the ongoing soap opera, it has been my Almanac colleague and much more experienced writer and commentator, Craig Little, who has started to get on the nerves of various Essendon supporters.
Craig doesn’t need me to speak or stand up for him. As he has mentioned, he has a thick skin, as you need to have in his profession, and has been called worse, however it is equally a shame but not a surprise that it has come to this.
In some ways, it is a credit to, and indication of, the growth and value of the Almanac as a place for serious and well-written sports debate and criticism that this should take place. However, whilst I don’t think the vast majority of readers and contributors want this site to be solely about match reports in which we all talk about what a lovely time we had sitting with friends in the outer while our side was beaten, I equally don’t want it to become Big Footy or the comments sections in the Hun.
With that in mind, it is worth turning to a look at who is winning and who is suffering out of this amazing process, since it began. As I have written before, I think the players were overlooked and treated shamefully in 2012 and 2013, and the frantic and self-absorbed legal battles based on debating issues of process and fine-print make that even more clear to me now. However, over this journey, it is worth noting that there are many other losers, both formally and figuratively, for example, lost incomes or jobs, and more generally and esoterically, things like trust, faith and reputation.
In no particular order then, the casualty list so far – who has lost what, and who has come out barely scarred:
Ian Robson – remember Ian? He did the honourable and commercially and corporately correct thing as Essendon CEO in mid-2013 by tendering his resignation (immediately when this broke and a number of times again before accepted) as he stated that as the CEO, he should have known what was occurring in his football club, regardless of its legality. An experienced and highly valued administrator, he is now out of the AFL system and at the Melbourne Victory.
Steven Dank – whilst he has yet to face any financial penalties, (although that’s still a strong possibility under ASADA rules), it is safe to say that he has incurred large legal costs, as well as effectively being made completely unemployable in his chosen profession, with a shattered reputation.
Dean Robinson –the first fall-guy and a seemingly forgotten person in all this, he was suspended by Essendon, unlike many others involved, then terminated and he too cannot expect to ever again earn an income from the industry he relied on to work. He is currently engaged in a legal battle with an angry and non-conciliatory ex-employer, whilst engaging very expensive legal counsel.
Danny Corcoran – fined, suspended, and now gone from Essendon, you’d be hesitant to employ him in a senior capacity at your club now.
Mark Thompson – a significant fine, (which may not yet be paid) balanced by what we assume is a pay increase for added responsibilities in 2014, but his cherished and well-earned reputation as an honoured and respected Premiership captain and coach has been undoubtedly tarnished, and someone who left coaching due to workload issues has been thrust back into it again.
David Evans – his health severely affected by this in early to mid-2013, he is now gone from a position he seemed to enjoy holding, with long friendships broken and a lifelong relationship with Essendon tarnished, probably beyond repair.
Paul Little – well known in the business community as hard-nosed and successful before this, he is now known through football circles as the same. Little is wealthy enough to not notice any financial cost in this matter, and probably isn’t particularly fussed about his overall reputation. Anyone who dealt with him in corporate life wouldn’t be surprised at all by his approach, passion, dogged determination to win or willingness to go legal, however I’d argue he has lost some of the business credibility and status he worked hard for and also support for his club amongst fellow clubs and presidents, as well as made an enemy of the League.
Essendon as an organisation – the club has vacillated in making senior internal appointments (CEO, HR), with various important roles being delayed, further adding to the perception of whether governance is really seen as important at the EFC. The financial cost to the club through legal costs alone will be substantial, of that there is no doubt, and you’d argue that the club’s ability to be sure they are attracting the highest quality employees, draft picks or traded players will be impacted in some way. Equally, the amount of money the EFC has to invest in their core business, winning football matches, is adversely affected by unplanned money being spent elsewhere. Membership levels are still high it must be pointed out, but sponsors and members must be watching the legal battles with some concern.
Bruce Reid – A Life Member of the AFL and a well-respected figure through his club, a life’s work is being impacted by questions of why he was marginalised during this issue by Dank etc, and more importantly, who supported his exclusion. Especially if they were those he counted as friends. He rightly fought to ensure his reputation wasn’t hit by the AFL, and whilst mud will not likely stick to him, you cannot but feel he is a loser in this as are the next group.
The 34 Players – without going over old ground, or replaying articles I have written, the players who have been issued show-cause notices continue to live under a major professional and health-related cloud. The fact that they still do not know what was injected into them is the main matter here, as is any threat to their ability to earn a living doing what they love to do, and no amount of solution through the courts will rectify that. As admirable as the on-field performances of those still at the EFC continue to be (and interesting that in 2013 and 2014, they play best when away from Melbourne and with their backs against the wall), they have been the innocent parties and losers in all this. As to whether this flows onto other clubs who have traded for players who may now have these notices, or may in the future, is still to be seen, but their trust in the organisation that asks so much of them must be dampened. This must impact their ability to focus, as well as have continued faith in their club. Regardless of potential suspensions or long term health issues, they have lost the most through this. Whilst they had a responsibility to know what was happening with their bodies, they were at best lied to and at worst, treated like guinea pigs and fools.
Supporters/Members – this falls into two categories, both of whom have lost something. There are those who just love footy and their club, but who have had their faith in both bruised by all this, will lose if they again miss out on seeing their players compete in the finals as they did last year, are being asked to part with more of their hard-earned to support costly legal matters, and have to explain to everyone they meet what their position is on the matter when their red and black status is revealed. The other losers are those who vehemently deny this took ever place and see a conspiracy in every action. They have lost as they are being driven by their club to a corner from which anger and vitriol is the only way out. Whilst I admire their passion for their side, they have also been let down in being forced to be aggressive and take such sides.
Journalism –with some notable exceptions the two main newspapers and the associated role those print journalists have in other forms of media, have been lined up as proxy PR firms for either side of this debate. As such, many journalists are compromised, having had information leaked to them by different parties, and it is difficult to know who to believe any more.
The AFLPA – few losses so far, except for I believe they were slow to protect the players. Their fight now seems to be with ASADA and to a lesser extent the AFL. Legal costs will also be high, but the AFLPA’s big moment may be still to come; if any players are suspended and/or found guilty, the AFLPA’s fight will then be with Essendon, which could be interesting to watch.
The AFL – whilst it is difficult to look at cause and effect, and the state of the game on-field is a contributing factor, crowds and interest in the AFL as a sport seems down, and the scandal could not have helped. Their image has taken a hit, both their clear willingness to do deals to manufacture an outcome and also their lack of diplomacy from their ex CEO when it has come to muzzling various Essendon voices. They have assumed their size and importance would influence ASADA and that the timing of any investigation would suit their own calendar, particularly in 2013, where they came up with a solution in advance of any ASADA action to suit the finals, making some people believe the matter was closed. Satisfying sponsors, presenting always as lily-white and touting yourself around as a dominant brand are all difficult whilst this issue remains.
ASADA – for a body charged with keeping our many sports clean, they have been exposed as being under-staffed and disorganised. Be that the truth or not, it is clear that the average football supporter has lost faith with them. Whilst their credibility has been recovered in parts by their new CEO, and they do work at their own pace (witness Olympic gold medals being taken away by WADA many years after being awarded), they have definitely lost out in all of this.
Which brings us to the central figure in all of this, by design and by occasional admission: James Hird – What has he lost?
Formally: Whilst Hird stated at that fateful presser at AFL House early last year that he took full responsibility, his summary looks like this: (1) a suspension, during which he admittedly doesn’t get to do what he loves, which is to coach, but he is still paid his full (large) salary, in advance, and is (2) studying a top notch overseas management course with what we assume must be some form of financial support from his employer; (3) a contract extension, and (4) he has a guaranteed job and salary to return to, and at worst, (5) a significant pay-out in the vicinity of $2M should that not occur. He will (potentially) lose financially through major legal costs, but as with Paul Little (whilst not nearly in the same wealth league) these fees are unlikely to leave the financial burden they would on, say, a Dean Robinson.
Informally: If you were to state to someone when Hird retired, or took the EFC role, that his legacy could one day have an asterisk next to it that it does with Carey or Ablett Senior on character grounds, you’d be laughed at. However, that is where Hird now stands. Even if he was to have come clean and been honest at the very outset, his well-earned reputation as one of the finest players of his club’s history and a true champion of our game would still have suffered. Now though, that people have seen his staggering arrogance and a blinkered drive to win at all costs, on the field, in the medical room and in the courts, his halo is definitely rusted beyond repair.
Having said that, compared to: the impact on the jobs and careers of Robson, Dank, Robinson and Corcoran; weighed up against the state of his beloved club, its members and supporters, and; opposed to the lot of players that placed their trust in him and now find themselves under such media, legal and professional scrutiny, he has suffered way less.
The ultimate paradox is that in the end, Hird could lose the least out of everyone.
Any winners? Few I can think of. Baker and McKenzie as Age investigative journos are two, as is Richard Ings who keeps reminding us he once ran ASADA. Regardless of the outcome eventually being that the drugs used were either banned or not, the damage is done, and every party will walk away in some way dirty and affected.
A cynic would say that the only ones who will win will be the lawyers and the QCs. Luckily, there’s no cynic in sight here.