The Essendon in all of us

(Written in February)

The Essendon team of 2016, a patchwork of top-up players and inexperienced rookies, will have two opponents in every match they play.

One will be on the ground, trying to defeat them on the scoreboard. The other much larger opposition will be in the stands, hellbent on defeating them psychologically.

To the millions of opposition fans, Essendon is now a word synonymous with “drugs”, “illicit”, “cheater”, “liar”, “arrogance” and “naivety”.

The two-month lull between the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s guilty verdict and the start of the 2016 season will not dull supporters’ acrimony for the Bombers, nor the desire to torment them.

What a wonderful atmosphere Essendon’s home and away matches this year promise attendees.

Tempting though it may be to participate in this hyperactive schadenfreude, the fans of other clubs who do this ignore the other natural response to seeing someone else struggle: sympathy.

Sympathy has been notably absent from much of the suffocating coverage of the Essendon supplements saga, now four years old.

In failing to put ourselves in the shoes of the Essendon players present for what transpired across 2011-12, we risk making our judgements of their guilt invalid.

Would you have done what Cale Hooker, Michael Hurley, Tom Bellchambers or Tayte Pears did?

Before you say “no”, if that is your answer, consider the unique set of factors that governed the decisions the Essendon 34 made.

AFL football clubs today are, like all professional sports clubs and governing bodies, multi-million dollar businesses.

The boards that manage them are driven by profit; profits are dependent on fans, and fans are only guaranteed by success.

This ruthless pursuit of success is translated into pressure being put on the coaching staff, who then, through training, relay this pressure onto players.

These young men, doing what they have always wanted to in playing football at an elite level, are well aware their dream mightn’t last much longer, being signed on short-term contracts as they are.

Thus they are desperate to prove themselves indispensable team players, and tend to do whatever is asked of them.

Grinding out a lasting career as an AFL player has a lot to do with obedience to authority, and it’s here that the work of American social psychologist Stanley Milgram becomes relevant.

In 1963, Milgram conducted an experiment to investigate how ordinary people could be influenced into committing misdeeds, disguising it as a memory quiz for which dozens of ordinary people were recruited as “teachers”.

These “teachers” were separated by a screen from “learners”, and were told the learners were strapped to an electric chair.

For every mistake the learners made on the quiz, the teachers were told to administer electric shocks of increasing severity by the “experimenter”, a man in a lab coat also present. (The learners weren’t actually receiving jolts – they were actors hired by Milgram told to scream louder each time and eventually fall ominously silent.)

While most teachers expressed their desire to stop as they heard the learners in growing agony, when urged to continue by the experimenter – the authority figure – they obeyed. All participants administered “shocks” to 300 volts, a lethal amount, and two thirds did so to the maximum of 450 volts.

What Milgram’s experiment proves is that most people will obey authority if pressured, even if doing so involves being unethical.

In other words, the quality for which people seek to admonish Essendon in 2016 is ‘obedience’: a quality we all possess, and are all just as capable of exercising against our better judgment.

That’s something worth taking to account when considering all the accusations that have been and will be levelled against the Bombers this year.

No one is disputing the players have been found to have done wrong, but trying to understand why they did what they did is the first step to returning to an AFL free of scandal and in-fighting, which must surely be what everyone now desires.

With Milgram’s work in mind, it’s suddenly much easier to picture the Bombers playing group as they were having the concept of a “supplements program” described and administered to them for the first time.

They might have questioned the ethics of it in their minds, perhaps even voiced these concerns initially.

But they’d very quickly have heard Stephen Dank, James Hird and other superiors say “this is all above board, this is what all the clubs are doing, this is what’s going to make you a better player and take us to a premiership,” and then decided to respect authority before questioning it.

The Essendon 34 were told “jump”. Given the prevailing culture of AFL clubs it’s not surprising they responded with “how high?”.

About Alex Darling

Melbourne-born, Horsham-based footy fan. Lover of the Saints, classic rock guitar and good writing on each of these topics.


  1. Bigfooty bogan says

    Big difference between being told to jump and being asked to roll up your sleeve (or was it drop your dacks?)

  2. Peter Flynn says

    Senior players should’ve said go jump.

    No sympathy from me.

    Final responsibility rests with each player from Hunter to Fletcher.

    Moral compasses went missing.

    Every aspect of that program had a stench.

    I’m not doing that shit. It is easy to say and do.

    They are dopes.

    Alex, I enjoyed reading your piece and your question is a good one.

  3. Sorry Alex, I don’t buy it.

    “Would you have done what Cale Hooker, Michael Hurley, Tom Bellchambers or Tayte Pears did?”

    Before you do say anything, consider that’s what David Zaharakis said: “No.”

    So despite the pressure, saying “no” was certainly possible, It seems to me few more players should have followed that example than just the three reported.

    It seems to me virtually every single party involved in this debacle from bottom to top has performed poorly or worse, including those players. Zaharakis (whatever his reasons for refusing, and those of the nameless other three) is one of the few exceptions, for mine.

  4. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Ditto above where was the leadership group to say,NO and unte together I will never understand.
    So sick of aust sports people not accepting there own responsibilities and always interesting to hear Olympians speak both publicly and privately have net to meet any who don’t think the players got there just deserts in fact most think they got off lightly

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