SPIRO: Aussie sport’s “darkest day” has become even murkier

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A composite image of David Gallop CEO of Football Federation Australia (FFA) (top left), Andrew Demetriou, CEO of the Australian Football League (AFL) (top right), David Smith, CEO of the National Rugby League (NRL)(bottom left) and Bill Pulver, CEO of the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) (bottom right). AAP Image/Lukas Coch

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The Roar can reveal that a year ago ASADA confirmed with the ARU it was clean, as far as doping is concerned. The doping scandal in Australian sport revealed by the Australian Crime Commission’s report is mired essentially in the AFL and the NRL.

The NRL is particularly exposed (and this is admitted by journalists working for The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, the two newspapers that passionately support the code) because it has never had a central drug integrity unit.

The NRL was an organisation that essentially ran the premiership tournament. The clubs were left to manage their own activities and to set up their own medical units.

This is in contrast, say, with the ARU or the AFL which have (if they want to exercise the power) significant control over what happens to their players, on and off the field.

There were 222 tests of Australian rugby players last season, for instance, carried out under the control of the ARU.

The appointment of Nick Whitlam QC by the Australian Rugby League Commission to examine the medical practices of a number of rugby league clubs is illustrative.

The Whitlam inquiry probably needs to transform into an ongoing unit after it has completed its present brief.

The PR of the ACC’s report has been a fascinating exercise to follow, and a clue to the weight of the findings and to the report’s future impact on cleaning up Australian sport.

The publication of the report by the Minister for Sport Kate Lundy, with the CEOs of the major Australian professional sports present, provoked headlines that one never imagined were possible in an Australian context.

Publication day was quickly identified by the tabloids as “the darkest day” in Australian sport.

This sense of a watershed moment in Australian sport was heightened by the sombre and almost repentant responses from the CEOs. They all promised to do everything possible to clean up whatever needed to be cleaned up in their sports.

For their part the politicians involved, Kate Lundy and the rising federal Labor star Justice Minister Jason Clare, insisted the report was the first salvo of what was going to be a continuing bombardment against illegal doping and match-fixing, and against players and clubs that condoned the doping and, especially, against the criminal elements who were pushing the trade in the use of illegal supplements.

The ACC said it had hard evidence to back up its conclusions and it was prepared to offer some leniency to players, clubs, doctors and sports scientists who came forward to dob themselves in.

This initial favourable reaction from virtually all parties with an interest in the matter, however, was in danger of being overwhelmed by Saturday.

There was strong criticism from a number of influential voices that the ACC report had not named names, either of players or clubs, and that the evidence of drug abuse was more assertion than proof.

On Sunday, the AFL revealed the possibility of most of the Essendon club having been involved (again possibly unwittingly by the players) in the use of illegal drugs or illegal usage practices.

The AFL insisted, however, that to their knowledge this was the extent of the problem, with the possibility of one other player from another club being implicated.

On Saturday, The Australian newspaper, which led its sport section with several excellent pages, aside from a bizarre report on the ARU’s handling of drugs by Wayne Smith, gave this generic headline to its extensive coverage: Crime commission under siege.

The lead story of the coverage was written by Brent Read.

The headline of the story, “Show us the drug abuse evidence”, was an accurate summary of its content.

A key quote in the story was this from the rugby league guru and administrator, Phil Gould: “Nobody has been named, no club has been named and no sport has been named. It’s a broad-brush condemnation of Australian sport everywhere.”

Some of the biggest names in Australian sport, the likes of Brett Lee, Paul Roos and Wayne Bennett, were listed as supporting this Gould line.

Bennett, in particular, questioned the work of the anti-doping authorities and suggested that they somehow allowed a drug culture to “fester”.

Gould had also questioned the ACC’s “grandstanding announcements” in his Sunday column in The Sun-Herald.

“I would say that at this point in time, our code of rugby league is the cleanest and most responsible it has been in the entire history of the game,” he argued.

But the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Saturday that “seven NRL clubs, a number of AFL clubs, three A-League clubs and 90 individuals across all sports are under scrutiny.”

There was more detail, slightly at variance with the SMH, in The Sunday Telegraph. A story written by its Canberra correspondent Samantha Maiden (perhaps explaining the seeming inside information from the ACC) and Linda Silmalis suggested that six NRL clubs have been “snared” in the ACC’s report.

The NRL, the reporters claimed, know the six clubs which are being investigated by Tony Whitlam.

The article also quoted the ACC chief executive John Lawler: “I am very confident in the report’s findings. This is no beat-up. We have sworn testimonies. We have corroborated evidence.”

As an aside, there have been reports that some of this evidence has come from phone-tapping, which has been undertaken for more than a year.

I have often been critical of The Sunday Telegraph, on a number of different issues, but on this matter the newspaper has been a model of responsible journalism.

The Sports Editor, David Riccio, deserves a compliment on a lead story that carried the headline “The NRL has to name and shame.”

The article made a number of important claims:

* “Match-fixing and illicit drug connections within the NRL are the report’s main focus – and the authorities are anxious for NRL bosses to reveal the names of clubs under suspicion.”

* “The NRL convinced other codes to appear at last Wednesday’s press conference in Canberra, even though the other sports are far less implicated in the report.”

* “Crime Commission chief executive officer John Lawler claimed the investigation wasn’t a ‘beat-up’ despite the NSW Police suggesting there wasn’t enough evidence for charges to be laid.”

* “Frustration is also at fever pitch among the 16 NRL clubs, with club chief executives accusing the NRL of having ‘all care and no responsibility’ over the issue.”

These points, it seems to me, effectively kill off any suggestion by Phil Gould that the ACC report is a beat-up and that it is somehow intended to implicate the rugby league code without much evidence.

As Ray Hadley says at the beginning of his rugby league match calls, “It’s game on!”

For the NRL, that is.

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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