Essendon saga not done with yet

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Players express their frustration during the match between Essendon and Carlton at the MCG. (Photo: Andrew White/AFL Media)

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Jobe Watson’s public admission last Monday evening that he had taken the banned substance AOD-9604 is the first piece of hard evidence that those outside of the current AFL-ASADA investigation have been given with regards to the Essendon supplement scandal.

The revelation contained nothing new for the investigators, but it did give the general public and the football media something extra to sink their teeth into, allowing them to upgrade the many rumours and suspicions surrounding the whole affair from mere gossip to something more definable.

But while it brought to an end months of speculation about what the Essendon players may or may not have taken, it has done nothing to advance the progress of the current investigation or to provide answers as to the type or severity of sanctions that may follow.

While it may seem to be a cut and dried case – player admits to drug taking, player is punished – it is still anything but.

The Roar’s Glenn Mitchell wrote an excellent piece earlier this week focusing on the athlete’s responsibility to know what is being put into his or her body. And he is exactly right.

In this era of professionalism the onus is on our athletes to ensure that they are being treated within the bounds of acceptability.

WADA is explicit on this point and all the excuses under the sun will not give an athlete exemption from sanctioning.

There is a ‘no fault’ clause hidden somewhere among all the rules and regulations, but it is rarely applied successfully and it is doubtful whether Essendon could pursue that path.

And yet, despite all the noise being made by former ASADA head Richard Ings about bans now being unavoidable for the players of the Essendon Football Club he still suggests that it is premature to discuss rescinding Watson’s Brownlow medal.

Why?

Surely if, as he so stridently puts it, the athlete is solely responsible for what goes into his body and bans are unavoidable should that athlete stray into prohibited territory whether knowingly or otherwise, then removal of awards won during that time would be a no brainer?

Conflicting information has been the hallmark of this saga since the beginning, especially that which has filtered down to the public. This has been compounded by a perceived confidence from the Essendon Football Club that they will eventually be found to have done little wrong.

And when it is all said and done, perhaps the players themselves did do little wrong.

As part of its education process, the AFL sends its medical officers to each club during the pre-season. Their direction to the players should they encounter a questionable substance is to raise their concerns with the club doctor.

But what if the club doctor is part of the whole ‘pharmacologically experimental environment’ that was so colourfully described in Ziggy Switkowski report into the club’s governance?

Initially we were led to believe that Bruce Reid, Essendon’s long standing and highly respected doctor, was staunchly opposed to the supplements program. But Watson’s interview on Monday night places the doctor firmly at the coalface.

“I signed that consent form and my understanding, after it being given through Bruce Reid and the club, (was) that I was receiving AOD,” said Watson.

“….the understanding we had through the advice we got and through the medical doctor at the football club, (was) that it was a legal substance.”

They are damning words for the club’s medical department which once claimed that it was pushed aside or bypassed by the ‘rogue’ element at the football club led by former club sports scientist Stephen Dank.

If the players are guilty of anything, it is of being too trusting of those in charge, and too slow to react when things started to spiral out of control. Sure, it is easy to criticise from afar and with the added benefit of hindsight, but the words stupid and naïve also come to mind.

But then, throw an alleged communication with WADA into the mix – one that seemed to approve the use of the substance – and things become murkier again.

The alleged communication may or may not exist, but its ghost continues to lurk in the background and Essendon’s fate may rest upon it. It is a vital piece of evidence, one which even Ings suggests is a ‘get out of jail card’.

There was definite confusion when the story first broke with conflicting information coming from the ACC, the Therapeutic Drugs Administration, ASADA and WADA.

And while it now seems beyond doubt that AOD-9604 is, and was, a banned substance, was this clearly conveyed to Essendon before it embarked upon its controversial program?

Or did the ‘rogue’ element within the club manipulate and mislead those in power in order to get approval for their ‘cutting edge’ approach to the management of player recovery?

Hopefully the answers to these questions are being uncovered by the AFL-ASADA investigators and that a resolution, one way or the other, can be arrived at soon.

Don’t be holding your breath though. This case is not done with yet.

For the six players alleged to have taken AOD-9604, the waiting game must be a nightmare. It appears now that they knowingly took AOD-9604, most likely under the assumption that it was legal.

That will matter nought to the anti-doping authorities unless that information somehow came from them, but should it be revealed that misinformation regarding the supplement program was distributed from within the club, then a blood letting of the medical department for not double checking the so called facts needs to be immediate, no matter how long the individuals have worked there.

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