Book Review: The Straight Dope by Chip Le Grand

If you hold any sympathy for the view that Australia as a whole still runs itself like a glorified boy’s club, then the doping scandal that has engulfed the Essendon Football Club in recent seasons is the gift that keeps on giving. As this squalid, frequently ludicrous, tale has unravelled through a minefield of conflicting agendas, under-resourced investigation, and multiple layers of judicial oversight – all to the soundtrack of a screaming hallelujah chorus of media frenzy – few participants emerge with their reputations unscathed. Essendon may well have been found, by one of their own, to have “never adequately controlled or challenged or documented” the “pharmacologically experimental environment” they gave home to in 2012, but they are hardly alone in having their inadequacies revealed.

Not least exposed for its role has been football’s media. It probably isn’t surprising that those whose daily trade is training form or selection dissection might be caught short when faced with considerations of pharmacology and jurisprudence. But most revealing has been the willingness of so many experienced media operators to become little more than partisan cheerleaders, seemingly persuaded by whoever happened to be leaking to them at the time. It has been a festival of red herrings. Forests have been sacrificed in the production of much noise, but little clarity.

Considering this environment, veteran journalist Chip Le Grand wades into murky waters in his attempt to sift fact from spin. Having reported proceedings on a daily basis, he is participant as well as observer. What he has produced reads like an honest attempt at dispassionate reportage. Navigating the restrictive minefield of Australia’s liable laws, he reassembles the actions of those involved, providing timeline and context sorely lacking in the rush of daily coverage. He unpicks the agendas of the main actors, demonstrating how they were usually at cross purposes, and only incidentally concentrated on what might have been presumed to be the central question: were Essendon players guilty of breaching the WADA doping protocols? That this book could, by one interpretation, be regarded as a real life update on A Confederacy of Dunces reflects on the actions reported rather than the reporter himself.

Le Grand unveils a succession of actors convinced they are the smartest guys (it’s almost invariably guys) in their respective rooms. For all their confidence, what unfolds is a story of “incompetence rather than malevolence”.

Front and centre is Stephen Dank, the sports scientist who, by his own admission, always knows better. He knows the WADA code better than WADA. He knows more about what will help athletes than medical professionals who have spent their life in the field. He understands legal process better than judges. Le Grand looks at Dank’s prior involvement with several professional teams, highlighting the red flags that should have been obvious to Essendon had they employed due process before employing Dank. Dank’s ambitions to leverage the prestige of his Essendon role into wider business opportunities provides an introduction to a supporting cast of peptide peddlers, compounding chemists and assorted chancers whose dreams seem unencumbered by awareness of their own professional or ethical shortcomings.

When it appointed the coaching dream team of James Hird and Mark Thompson, Essendon thought itself the smartest club in the league. The dream team’s desire to make their playing list stronger and more durable is the impulse that sets all other events in motion. Le Grand dissects the blurred lines of responsibility that were established within the club,  the often inexplicable failure of key people to act at crucial moments. This becomes a case study in organisational dysfunction, a classic example of how force of personality can override other considerations, to the detriment of sound process and basic common sense.

Of course, the dominant Essendon personality here is the rookie coach Hird; the golden child returned to lead his club to the promised land. Hird’s role as the totemic figure of this entire saga is probably overstated, as Le Grand seems inclined to point out, but he has only himself to blame for his predicament. His stubborn determination may have served him well as a player, but in this context it led him to have a poor sense of his own interests and responsibilities. He continues to claim limited culpability, but skirts the basic fact that the path to a prosperous Essendon career at this time was paved with his approval. Everyone at Essendon was seeking to please Hird. Some may have deluded themselves in this regard, but the fact remains it was to Hird that everyone looked: he could have shut down proceedings at any stage had he followed up decisively on what he knew.

The enigma of Hird the player versus Hird the man, and his spectacular fall from grace, remains to this day. The Hird who claims he only accepts responsibility at a press conference because he was pressured, who accepts a penalty while claiming innocence,  seems at odds with the player who always had time to consider his options. In The Short Long Book, Martin Flanagan asked Michael Long for his thoughts on Hird. After consideration, Long replied, “I don’t know who his friends are, I don’t know who he laughs with, I don’t know who he cries with”. Given his conduct through this case, many will share similar questions.

The AFL hoped Hird would be the face of their solution to the Essendon dilemma. In their relatively short existence, the AFL has become a very large fish in the Australian sporting pond. An old boy’s club writ large, they’d become used to getting their own way, so it was standard operating procedure that they would try to manufacture an outcome acceptable to their priorities. Brand protection required that the players escape sanction, so they became as complicit as Essendon in the mantra of player innocence, even as they were a party to investigation of player behaviour. Judgements were compromised to suit commercial imperatives.

Le Grand examines the parallel circumstance of NRL club Cronulla. It makes for enlightening comparison. Though suspicious of an ASADA/AFL deal, the NRL leaves the investigation to run its own course. They produce their own report of findings, take their own actions based on those independent findings, and leave Cronulla and ASADA to reach their settlement. The AFL pours scorn on this approach at the time, but WADA, despite misgivings, signs off on the Cronulla penalties. Cronulla’s problems are now in the past. We all know where Essendon stands.

It isn’t only AFL governance that comes out of this affair poorly. Australian politicians of all persuasions have long claimed the moral high ground concerning drugs in sport, but they were notably negligent when funding the enforcement of these lofty sentiments.. Le Grand explains how poorly placed ASADA was at the start of the Essendon investigation. With a risible investigative budget, and few coercive powers, ASADA was a largely toothless tiger sent to hunt some very big game. An ill-matched collection of career bureaucrats and short-term contracted investigators, their controversial co-investigation with the AFL is born more out of practical necessity than preference. Under pressure from many sides, it is little wonder mistakes ensued.

The principle shortcoming with The Straight Dope is unavoidable owing to the timing of its publication. Coming out before the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the WADA appeal, it couldn’t be privy to the hindsight judgements that will inevitably be applied now.

The author should be commended for an assiduous job of compiling the available details. However, this reader has qualms about some of the conclusions Le Grand reaches. Most fundamentally, the responsibility of the players is under-examined, the mantra of player innocence not sufficiently questioned. That the players had no control over their circumstance is contradicted by the actions of David Zaharakis alone. This was always the elephant in the room everyone (except WADA) sought to avoid. Player innocence was asserted in contradiction of a defence largely predicated on claimed ignorance of what was administered. It was always a flimsy shield.

The AFL signed up to the WADA protocols, and the essence of that protocol is that every individual athlete is responsible for what is administered to their body, regardless of circumstance. Given the corruption of world sport already known, it is hard to see how the code could operate any other way. Once an AFL tribunal had found otherwise, it was almost essential that WADA challenge that finding. For all their strategizing and game playing, Essendon and the AFL have served merely to distract the players from this essential point. It was always likely to come down to them. The AFL cannot now ignore the fact it is part of a bigger sporting world. Nor can its players.

This is a story still far from complete, but if the CAS judgement has stirred you to be better informed, The Straight Dope, read in conjunction with those CAS findings is as good a place to start as you can currently find.

 

The Straight Dope: The Inside Story of Sport’s Biggest Drug Scandal

By Chip Le Grand

Melbourne University Press, $29.99

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.

Comments

  1. Lovely work John.

    I read TSD in the middle of the 2015 season and learnt plenty. Like you, I was dismayed and angry in equal measure of how so-called ‘journalists’ (award-winning ones at that) prostrate themselves before the relevant parties to become nothing more than PR conduits.

    I’m interested to see if there’s an updated version in the works, now that WADA have made a ruling. Considering the access he had to the parties involved when writing the book, the thoughts of Andruska, Doc Reid, Danny Corcoran, Bomber Thompson and co. would make interesting reading.

    David Evans still maintains his silence to this day, which is also quite intriguing to me, as well.

  2. John Butler says

    Steve, I think there is much that still intrigues at Essnedon during this time. Some of the explanations offered to date stretch credibility.

    The CAS findings provide the perfect opportunity for an updated TPS, or an equivalent.

    But, to borrow from The People’s Elbow, the real question is where’s Stephen Dank?

  3. I think the prefix ‘Disgraced’ should be used when mentioning Stephen Dank at every opportunity.

    “Disgraced sports scientist Stephen Dank…”

    If Dank’s not hiding out somewhere in South America like Omar from the T.V show ‘The Wire’ he should be. There’s a swathe of questions he should be made to answer. I’m sure Hal Hunter’s legal team would love the chance to depose/interview the man.

  4. Good stuff JB and Chip. Your line that “judgements were compromised to suit commercial imperatives” rings particularly true and worrying for me.
    The Sport V Business uneasy balance within the AFL badly needs the antiseptic of sunlight and scrutiny. The AFL intimidates anyone who gets in its commercial way.
    I have been reading Paddy Steinfort’s “Breakfast with Bails” in the last week with the Essendon shenanigans as backdrop. Its largely a life affirming book that takes a positive psychology approach. But every so often the pointing finger of Dean Bailey reaches out from the grave to haunt his persecutors.
    The main targets are Cameron Schwab and GIllon McLachlan cast in his role as AFL Corporate Lawyer/Fixer. He comes across like Robert Duvall’s “Tom Hagen” consigliere to a Pacino/Michael Corleone/Demetriou.
    This is a para quoting Bailey’s lawyer Chris Pollard in a meeting with McLachlan about the Melbourne tanking charges.
    “Aside from being a disappointing CEO at Melbourne, Schwab is also a director of the holding company of the gambling licence at the Bentleigh Club, which Melbourne owns. Let’s say, hypothetically, if you charge Melbourne OR Schwab, under the gambling laws the licence would be taken away. Meaning financially, Melbourne would fall over. And that’s not the biggest domino either – with one team gone, the almighty AFL would be in breach of their broadcasting rights with only 17 teams there to play. Bails is the only one you can go after without shooting yourself in the foot.”
    Its a powerful explanatory parable for the AFL’s tut tutting while slapping with a wet lettuce over the Essendon PED investigation. All front and no substance.

  5. John Butler says

    I liked Garry Lyon’s quote on Footy Classified – to paraphrase -, “if there was a world body for tanking the AFL would have been in trouble long before Essendon”.

  6. Peter Fuller says

    Peter B.
    Adam Schwab had an article in Crikey.
    I expect that it is behind the Crikey paywall, but I’ll include the link as try-on.
    http://media.crikey.com.au/dm/newsletter/dailymail_d293053c74697e0cddf96ad7c4d69fc3.html#article_38780

  7. Excellent summary JB. Thanks.
    I think I will pass on this book.
    There are not too many who have emerged from this saga unscathed.

    Yes, indeed, as the People’s Elbow rightly asks “has anyone heard from Steven Dank?”

  8. Impressive review JB. I note your reference to Le Grand’s ‘dispassionate reportage’. I’m not sure I got quite the same vibe from him during the saga.

  9. John Butler says

    JD, I refer to the book only. I can’t speak to his daily reportage with much familiarity.

  10. george greenberg says

    A fantastic read. Magnificently researched and written. Reads like a thriller.
    Absolutely no doubt EFC’s governance was a shocking shambles and it is the Board which should have taken the hit.; the AFL acted despicably; using C Wilson as their media rottweiler ; Hird was shafted by both Demetriou and Evans. And finally, Dank is a disgrace.

  11. John Butler says

    Cheers George.

    Good of you to dig this one out of the archives.

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