Just because Essendon’s players are in a culture where everyone is drunk on competition, doesn’t mean their actions can be excused when the hangover hits.
There are a few parts of football that exist within a legitimate grey area.
The actions of taggers like Ryan Crowley and Steven Baker, the decision of an umpire for sliding one way, or a kick in danger the other.
It’s in this grey area that the Bombers-commissioned report by QC Ziggy Switkowski into the illegal supplements program at Essendon sought to place the club’s actions.
The words he used to describe the program, which is still the subject of a lengthy and drawn-out ASADA investigation, were “pharmacologically experimental environment”.
The report was a non-commitment, a way for Essendon to maintain that action was being taken, without admitting guilt or responsibility.
The spanner in the works was a confession on the Fox Footy program On The Couch by Essendon captain Jobe Watson that he took the WADA banned substance AOD-9604, an anti-obesity drug, over the course of his Brownlow winning 2012 season.
Following the confession he was allowed to play on, despite admitting to contravening the most basic rules of the game.
In his first game following the interview he was unceremoniously booed by a 40,000-strong partisan Eagles crowd at Patersons Stadium and quickly became a martyr for the Essendon players.
He braved the torrent of abuse to collect 29 touches and secured the game with a late one-percenter: tapping the ball to an oncoming teammate to set-up the winning goal with the scores even and little over a minute to run.
The bulk of the commentary from Bryan Taylor and Matthew Richardson, somehow employed by Channel Seven as their second-string commentary team, vilified the “cruel” Eagles fans and praised Watson’s bravery and “champion status”.
The Fox Footy panellists discussing the game afterwards, largely Dermott Brereton, also praised Watson’s courage, saying that he would have been within his rights to physically or verbally threaten close Eagles fans, as Tony Lockett once did to a group of Sydney fans when he scored 11 goals against them for St Kilda in 1994.
What these commentators failed to understand was that the response of the Eagles fans wasn’t cruelty, or jealousy as it was with Plugger.
It was a reasonable reaction to a player having contravened not just the rules, but the very base ethics of fairness entrenched in the conception of competitive sports, showing no remorse for doing so and shifting the blame elsewhere.
The line being followed here is that Watson and his fellow players are a group of lambs drawn to slaughter by the competitive urges of their club and its evil scientist archetype of a medical team.
It’s a theory being perpetuated by an incestuous football media, made up largely of ex-players, keen to shift blame from their favourite sons.
What’s being lost in this discussion is the moral and legal culpability of the Essendon players, Watson included, if it is proven by ASADA that they took WADA-banned supplements, even if they were administered to them.
Watson showed no remorse, and claimed no responsibility, because he claims he was told that the injections he was given were legal.
However, the WADA code asserts that the athlete is primarily responsible for what goes into their body.
The Essendon players had to consent to whatever was going into their bodies, they knew the names of the substances entering their bodies and by allowing the injections they were at best being wilfully negligent.
A glad-handing media is too quick to accept the explanation and perpetuate the myth that the players are innocents, manipulated by dark suits in the back office.
The myth is that the back office is drawn into misbehaviour by the lure of competition.
However, the culture of competition, or will of their team hierarchies, was not a defence for any of the doping cyclists from the Armstong era, and shouldn’t be here.
Further complicating this is that while none of the players were stood down by the club, neither were anybody else who could possibly be responsible.
Coach James Hird and club doctor Bruce Reid remain at work with the full confidence of the club hierarchy, despite their privileged knowledge of the supplements program appearing to place a cloud over the morality of their current employment.
Equally baffling is the decision of the AFL to “allow the ASADA investigation to run its natural course” and allow Jobe Watson to play on when they haven’t afforded similar leeway to the equally “innocent until proven guilty” Ben Cousins and Stephen Milne.
Milne, who returned to action to boos from a hostile MCG crowd on July 13 against Carlton, currently stands accused of raping a girl nine years ago.
The case has been brought forward now due to embarrassment by the Victorian Police over corruption probes around the incident when it was thrown out a decade ago, and has less chance of prompting a conviction than the WA DPP appeal of the Rayney case.
Despite the unlikeliness of his guilt, the AFL was quick to, apparently, request that St Kilda stand Milne down in a private meeting.
It showed the same heavy hand when it suspended Ben Cousins in 2007 for a year on the nebulous charge of “bringing the game into disrepute” despite the fact that he was never convicted of any crime or charge against the game.
Imagined crimes that violate the role model status and wholesome image of AFL footballers inspire overexuberant responses to protect the game’s reputation in the wider world from the behaviour of its rogue dissidents, while likely offences against the game itself go unpunished and ignored.
Lackadaisical responses to crises within the internal football world have also been present in the light penalties handed to Melbourne for tanking, in which Chris Connolly became a sacrificial lamb, and Adelaide for manipulating the salary cap, for which its CEO Steven Trigg received, in effect, a six month holiday in the form of a suspension, and a quick return to his high-paying job.
It’s perhaps this attitude that angered the Eagles fans the most of all on that June night.
The AFL continues to be an incestuous pool of injustice, where blame is shifted from player, to coach, to director, to CEO, to player, to agent, to father of player, to AFL, to ASADA, to Sports Minister, until the source of any crime can be covered up.
A culture of blamelessness persists.
Watson remains a symbol of this organisational weakness, the latest in a series of ‘idiots’ who ‘couldn’t have known’ what was going wrong.
I’m not suggesting that he is guilty, or that ASADA will find him so. Perhaps he didn’t receive the drug he thought he did. Perhaps ASADA/WADA mistakenly labelled the drug banned when it shouldn’t have been.
However, the crime of which he stands accused, and has confessed to, is so obviously an offence against the game itself that, like a murderer refused bail, it wouldn’t be right to let Watson play while he remains under serious scrutiny.
In an act of Karma, Watson was injured against Port Adelaide on July 7, and will miss at least four weeks with a broken collarbone.
Some pundits, like Brad Johnson, are bucking the trend, and suggesting discrete punishment such as stripping his Brownlow Medal.
Still, it’ll be interesting to see how the AFL manages to avoid punishing him and his fellow players when the investigation completes and he returns in a few weeks’ time.