ASADA vs Essendon: through the haze and fog, now what?

Thirty-four current and former Essendon players have been cleared of taking a banned substance during the club’s supplements program. AAP/Joe Castro

After a two-year Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) investigation, the AFL’s anti-doping tribunal ruled unanimously on Tuesday that banned substance thymosin beta-4 was not proven to have been administered to 34 Essendon Football Club players in 2011-12. ASADA, which led the investigation and charged the players, has not yet announced whether it will appeal the tribunal’s decision. It has 21 days to do so.

And with that, the so-called “blackest day” in Australian sport – February 7, 2013 – can now instead be described as the precursor to its foggiest period. It began when then-Gillard government ministers Jason Clare and Kate Lundy – along with the heads of Australia’s major sporting organisations – presented to the media an Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report, Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport. Clare said:

The findings are shocking and they’ll disgust Australian sports fans.

Unredacted copies were passed onto police. Two years later, the public still awaits the arrests of organised crime figures associated with that investigation. In that respect the fog remains. But what are we to make of the anti-doping ruling on the Essendon players?

What about ASADA’s credibility?

ASADA CEO Ben McDevitt was unimpressed with the AFL tribunal’s decision. He said:

What happened at Essendon in 2012 was … absolutely and utterly disgraceful.

Rather than cop the decision sweet, McDevitt harked back to Essendon’s governance failings, for which the club had already received significant penalties back in 2013 – including the suspension of coach James Hird, a A$2 million fine, the loss of draft picks and expulsion from that year’s finals series.

ASADA can challenge the verdict at the AFL Appeals Tribunal and ultimately the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But if it does so, ASADA will be unlikely to find support in the court of public opinion. After two years of fog, footy fans, clubs and players are yearning for blue sky. They now better understand the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) and its requirements. They want to move forward.

What about athletes and their entourage?

Footballers put trust in their employers to provide a safe working environment. Athletes therefore need to have faith in those at the club who provide substances and treatments for nutritional, medical and performance purposes. Responding to the tribunal’s decision, Essendon captain Jobe Watson said:

When you go to your employer and they can’t tell you exactly what went on, that’s concerning. And I think the players are well within their rights to feel anger about that.

A footballer is in no position to refuse a drink from a trainer and ask for the contents to be independently tested. Yet this is what WADA’s strict liability principle infers: anything that ends up in the body of an athlete is their responsibility.

In Essendon’s case, players were hoping – rather than being certain – that the substances they were provided adhered to what they signed to accept, and all was consistent with the WADA code.

What about governance?

Stephen Dank masterminded Essendon’s program. Dank, though not recognised by Exercise and Sports Science Australia as an accredited sport scientist, orchestrated a “cutting-edge” high-performance regime. Essendon was penalised and ultimately accepted abject failure in its responsibility to adequately supervise and monitor the day-to-day operation of its sport science program.

This was not an admission that doping took place. Rather, Essendon acknowledged that it was unable to categorically state what supplements were administered to each player.

The fog in this respect is now lifting. There have been reforms in sport science personnel management and in the operation and record-keeping of Essendon’s football department. The AFL has also added layers of health and safety compliance, such as:

No substance is to be administered to any player by injection other than by an appropriately qualified medical practitioner and only to the extent it is necessary to treat a legitimate medical condition.

Yet only one AFL club, Port Adelaide, has insisted that all of its sport science staff be accredited with ESSA, which is the peak body for this profession, and operates under a code of ethics under which breaches result in disciplinary procedures.

What about drugs in Australian sport?

Looking specifically at the AFL, Ahmed Saad served an 18 month-ban after consuming a protein drink that included a stimulant banned in competition. Ryan Crowley is facing suspension after testing positive to a substance banned in competition that he claims was contained in a painkiller. And very recently, Lachlan Keeffe and Josh Thomas have tested positive to the performance-enhancing substance clenbuterol.

The first two cases appear to be inadvertent positives – negligence rather than deception. The second case has mirrors the world over in sports like athletics and cycling – the assumption is deception rather than negligence.

The management of risk and the health and well-being of players remains an ongoing challenge in elite sport. The AFL – Australia’s best-resourced sporting organisation – needs to restore public faith in its governance systems and processes. While Essendon players were cleared of doping, they were unimpressed about being accused of cheating after putting trust in their employer.

ASADA also has a big task to win back public confidence. Its processes are unwieldy, and a Senate inquiry into its operation has been mooted. Maybe that will help to lift the fog on anti-doping in Australia.