For some three years now the ongoing saga surrounding the Essendon Football Club and their controversial – to say the least – supplements regimen that operated in the club during the 2012 AFL Season has cast a shadow over the club, and the game writ large.
Not only has this been the biggest controversy in the history of the Australian Football League, it’s been the biggest controversy in the history of Australian sport period.
This morning the Herald Sun lifted the lid on what is supposedly the “leaked” transcripts from 34 past and present players interviewed by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority during the course of their investigation. The document runs to some 1,300-odd pages, and contains detailed evidence that at times clarifies some of the decisions handed down during the course of the protracted investigation, whilst at other times it provides yet more confusion.
With the World Anti-Doping Authority‘s appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport looming at some point towards the end of the year, we waded through the documents to give a concise, digestible account of the developments, and what it potentially means for the careers of the 34 players – all of whom have found themselves at the centre of the biggest furore sport in this country has ever borne witness to.
Before we begin, can we get a quick refresher on what’s happened up to this point?
Absolutely. In 2012, the Essendon Football Club embarked on a secretive, by all accounts disorganised, and wildly controversial regimen of supplements injections on its playing list. The program became the subject of a still ongoing investigation into its operations by the AFL and ASADA. Essendon brought themselves under scrutiny of officials by “self-reporting” to the AFL on February 5th, 2013. Two days later this was followed by the now-infamous “Blackest Day in Australian Sport” press conference convened by ASADA, the Australian Crime Commission, and Senior Ministers of the then-Gillard Labor Government, backed by senior officials from the AFL and NRL.
34 players from Essendon’s 2012 playing list were identified by the subsequent two-year investigation as potentially having cases to answer. Though throughout the process – largely conducted behind closed doors without direct media presence – confusion largely reigned as the prevailing emotion.
In 2014, the players were issued “Show Cause” notices by ASADA and its chief executive Ben McDevitt. Following failed legal interjection, the players pushed ahead with AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal hearings, which ultimately found them not guilty on the grounds of insufficient evidence. ASADA chose not to appeal the verdict, however global watchdog WADA filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is due to be heard at some point towards the end of the year at the earliest.
Who orchestrated this whole mess?
The short answer here is that it’s the doing of the “sports scientist” Stephen Dank, as well as the senior personnel at Essendon who hired him and allowed his program to run largely independent of the club’s on-staff medical practitioners.
That seems dodgy, even in one-sentence form. Why the shit would they allow that?
The club largely allowed Dank autonomy in order to protect what it perceived to be his or their “intellectual property.” That is, the program was allowed to run in a largely secretive manner because the Football Department was wary of it being stolen and replicated by rival clubs. So Dank was performing injections on players despite not being a medical doctor, and outside of the knowledge and support of the club’s highly respected physician, Dr. Bruce Reid.
Jesus. So why on earth would you hire a rogue-sounding lunatic like Dank in the first place?
Professional sports are highly competitive, and any edge gained is a good one – no matter how minute. At the time, the Bombers were in the midst of a radical rebuild of their football department, following a lacklustre three year period under the (at the time) recently fired coach Matthew Knights. Club favourite son James Hird had been coaxed into the senior coach’s chair from comfortable media and sports marketing positions despite no prior coaching experience at any level in the AFL. Club great Mark “Bomber” Thompson had virtually been poached from his position as coach of Geelong – where he had steered the Cats into a dynasty phase, winning two premierships – to take up the role of Hird’s senior assistant.
Along with Thompson came strength and conditioning coach Dean Robinson – known colloquially as “The Weapon.” Robinson recommended the services of Dank to the club, who hired him as a full-time operator. The recommendation, and subsequent hire, was not necessarily unfounded. Robinson had a long history of success, having helped shape the foundations of Premiership wins for Manly in the NRL, and Geelong in the AFL. Dank also had documented involvement with Manly during that time, and it is claimed that Robinson maintained a working relationship with him throughout those years.
So what was actually in the injections that’s caused all this nonsense?
See, this is the thing. No one really knows. Dank’s record keeping for this entire period has been notoriously scattered, disorganised, and even completely non-existent. If he does indeed have detailed records of who was given what on what day, he’s keeping that to himself. Which he is well within his rights to do, by the way – legislation, as it stands, does not compel Dank to provide evidence at any stage of any hearing. And owing to the fact that it’s not a criminal investigation – rather a moralistic issue – warrants to search his premises for additional evidence cannot be obtained.
The substance that the ASADA issue is based on is largely Thymosin Beta 4. It’s a naturally occurring protein that, in doping cases, is speculated to aid with the repairing of tissue or assist the recovery of muscle tears and strains. It is a banned substance.
However, ASADA’s case fell down in that it could not prove definitively if TB-4 had been used by Dank to inject players at Essendon – Dank himself asserts that he used the similar, but legal, Thymomodulin, which is an immune response booster.
And what about the documents in today’s Herald Sun?
The Herald today published the transcript of the entire 1,294-page tribunal hearing – proceedings that were supposed to occur behind closed doors, away from the public and media. The proceedings presided over by the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal (an independent panel of sporting arbitrators that are not ordinarily directly employed by the AFL) that ultimately cleared the Essendon 34 on grounds of insufficient evidence.
What was contained within the transcripts?
Chiefly, that the Essendon players raised their doubt about the program during 2012, and that some players had suffered side-effects from the injections.
Bloody hell. Like what?
Physical pain in injection regions – which were more often than not the buttocks. One player remarked that it “was like concrete going into your arse,” and many detailed physical pain in walking following the injections, with one even worried that it would cause him to miss a game that coming weekend.
Another player also reported experiencing a hot flush following an injection, “presumably the melotonin.”
Senior players had expressed discomfort at the regimen in its early stages, with one withdrawing from the program completely after tearing a hamstring during a game and subsequently blaming it on the injections.
One unintended – but apparently welcome – side-effect of the program was the unexpected onset of solid winter tans; tanning boosters have been documented to have been a part of the program, though the athletic benefit of their use remains unproven.
Why did the ASADA case fail?
Because, simply put, they couldn’t prove anything they were alleging. Rather than concrete evidence of any one point, they relied on a series of “signposts” – a snowballing timeline of speculative events – and urged the tribunal to consider their cumulative weight of proof, rather than the strength of any individual point. The Essendon defence relied largely on picking apart that tactic point by point, insisting that ASADA show their work, more or less.
Were there any other revelations to come out of the transcripts?
Firstly, that Dank had apparent dealings with Robinson whilst Robinson was employed by the Geelong Football Club. Though Dank never physically set foot inside the club’s walls, then-football operations chief Neal Balme was aware, and approved of, dealings with Dank on a consultancy level.
Secondly, that the Melbourne Football Club came dangerously close to hiring Dank following the termination of his contract at Essendon. Dank reached out to the club, and made some inroads towards moving across to the Demons, before all communication was terminated after Essendon’s self-reporting.
So will the WADA case against the Essendon 34 succeed?
It’s difficult to see it winning. WADA does claim that it has recorded “unusually” high readings of TB-4 in two frozen samples from the Essendon group. But testing for the substance in an anti-doping capacity is in its infancy at best, and an elevated level of a naturally occurring protein is not necessarily a red flag, particularly when it’s a small hit rate trying to prove a broader case.
Unless they do have some hidden extra evidence to submit, it feels likely that a similar outcome – one of insufficient evidence for a guilty verdict to be given – will occur.
The Essendon 34 are completely not guilty, then?
No. They’re just not GUILTY. The 2012 program was a poorly managed mess that has stained the game and set the course of the club back arguably a decade. But the mental anguish this nearly 3-year investigation has caused shouldn’t be wished on anyone, and that – despite no official suspension – is probably punishment enough for a group of young men who simply trusted a guy who (supposedly) knew more about medical substances than they did. Much in the same way that any of us do.
It’s been a long, and very sorry story. The only thing left for it to do now, is end.
Photos: Mark Metcalfe, Quinn Rooney, Michael Dodge, via Getty Images.