Bounce of the ball

Bounce of the ball

Elementary Watson? The status of Jobe Watson’s Brownlow Medal

AAP/David Crosling

With the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling that Essendon footballers were knowingly guilty of doping in 2012, there have been spirited arguments for and against Jobe Watson retaining his medal as the league’s best and fairest player in that AFL season.

This article will not survey those competing perspectives. Its broad purpose is to explore loss of symbolic rewards for athletes suspended for doping, and to ponder decisions about allowing or disallowing a suspended athlete to retain a symbolic reward.

The Essendon 34

WADA’s successful appeal to CAS has resulted in 34 past or present Essendon footballers being banned from participation in any competitive sport until November 2016. Under the AFL’s Anti-Doping Code, which is in accord with the WADA Code, there are further constraints. Sanctioned players cannot be involved with Essendon or another sport club in any formal capacity, such as coaching or administration.

They can watch AFL games and other sport events, but must do so away from spaces where clubs and match officials congregate. If they step inside changerooms – even for an innocuous shake of hand or well-wishing – their suspension will wind back and start again.

These isolating conditions are typical for sanctioned athletes around the world.

Further punishment?

WADA does, however, give some leeway to sport bodies in terms of whether they apply additional penalties upon athletes who have been found guilty of doping. It cannot be a longer period of ineligibility; that is contrary to the WADA Code (as the British Olympic Association found out when it tried to introduce life bans for doping).

Controversially, a handful of European countries has taken steps to criminalise doping. Again WADA opposes an additional layer of punishment, but in this instance is powerless to stop sovereign governments from putting athletes behind bars should they be proven – beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law – to have cheated.

The International Olympic Committee has a policy of stripping the results of dopers and requiring them to return medals. This approach is consistent with the view that doping provides an unfair advantage over other competitors, and that symbolic rewards associated with victory are tainted by performance fraud.

From this perspective the legitimacy of medals and trophies, as well as prizes and money, are called into question. One way of righting this wrong is to ensure that dopers are made invisible in the record books, and for those who finished immediately behind them to be elevated onto the dais.

Individual sports

The 2009 WADA Code (which was operational in 2012) states the following:

An anti-doping rule violation in individual sports in connection with an in-competition test automatically leads to disqualification of the result obtained in that competition with all resulting consequences, including forfeiture of any medals, points and prizes.

In the case of positive tests, this has led to the striking of numerous Olympic results and records, as well as the stripping of medals from sanctioned athletes, with those next in line being elevated in terms of their finishing position and symbolic reward.

The timing of drug indiscretions is part of the decision making process. Russian heptathlete Tatyana Chernova had a 2009 urine sample re-tested in 2015; this showed the presence of an anabolic steroid. She was, however, able to retain her title of 2011:

Chernova was banned and had two years of results wiped out by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, but that period ended just 16 days before she won gold at the World Championships.

Some decisions do seem peculiar. After confessed doper Marion Jones was retrospectively disqualified in, among several events, the 100m sprint at the Sydney Olympics, the runner-up, Katerina Thanou, was given first place but not a gold medal.

Thanou retained her silver medal but – extraordinarily – was denied the 2000 Games gold medal because she missed several drug tests in the lead-up to the 2004 Games, where she eventually did not compete.

Team sports

WADA’s brief is to detect doping and to suspend sanctioned athletes, but it gives peak sport bodies leeway about how to deal with teams and their retention or otherwise of cups, premierships, medals and so on.

Thus, for team sports, there is some flexibility in the event of one or more player sanctions, with peak sport bodies having discretion to impose further punishments on a team (such as collective disqualification, fines and trade restrictions), and to pursue further punishments on individuals within a team (such as club-imposed fines and loss of salary).

WADA states that:

Disqualification or other disciplinary action against the team when one or more team members have committed an anti-doping rule violation shall be as provided in the applicable rules of the international federation.

Decisions by sport bodies about who keeps what medal and why are not always simple or predictable. After the 2012 Olympics the US men’s 4x100m relay team was stripped of its second placing after one member tested positive to an out-of-competition test.

By contrast, when one of the US women’s 4x400m relay team admitted to drug use she was stripped of gold but her team mates retained first place and their medals.

WADA-compliant non-Olympic team sports, which are obviously not answerable to the IOC, have greater discretion about how and why the records and achievements of teams with sanctioned participants be stricken or remain.

Some are hardline. At the 2011 the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Masters Championships, the victor (and gold medallist), Australian Mark Richardson, tested positive in-competition for cannabis, after which he was disqualified for three months, his team docked points, and was stripped of individual honours.

According to ISA, a positive test meant they had an obligation to ban Richards (and to then consider ramifications for his team):

While marijuana is not considered to be a performance-enhancing drug, it is a banned substance [in-competition] according to the World Anti Doping Association (WADA), of which the ISA is a signatory.

Unlike Richards and his team, Essendon had no championship to surrender, but there is consideration about the status of Jobe Watson’s 2012 Brownlow Medal. Here the AFL has the discretion to either allow Watson to retain that symbolic achievement or remove it from him (in which case it could be awarded to runners-up Trent Cotchin and Sam Mitchell, or given to no-one in that year).

As mentioned previously, WADA defers to peak sport bodies in terms of their “applicable rules” for disqualification or disciplinary action involving teams and members thereof. However, after looking through the anti-doping policies of several Australian sport organisations (as applicable to 2012), there is a general absence of specified “rules” about this. The reader is therefore left with the assumption that sports expected to consider situations on a case-by-case basis.

The AFL Anti-Doping Code (2010) is therefore typical in that respect.

What should be done?

In a last-ditch effort to clear their names, the Essendon players have appealed to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland. They will sit out 2016 as required of sanctioned athletes, but hope to convince the Swiss court that the not guilty verdict of the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal should stand.

This means that there is a delay in the AFL’s decision-making on whether Watson should retain or be stripped of his 2012 Brownlow Medal.

Given the global practice for athletes who are sanctioned for doping to lose individual symbolic rewards (their team may sometimes be spared), it is difficult to see a cogent case for why the AFL would not feel obligated to follow suit. Although ASADA saw the Essendon players as naïve victims in their submission to the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal, WADA subsequently won a case on appeal where the accused were depicted as willing accomplices in being administered a drug deemed to be performance enhancing.

Some athletes can be unlucky, such as the cannabis-smoking “doper” Mark Richardson. Pot luck indeed.

Other athletes can be lucky, such as Cameron Smith, who – despite his club being convicted of financial doping between 2006 and 2009 and the team stripped of premierships – was able to retain the Dally Messenger medal for the best NRL player in 2006 and the Golden Boot award for the best international rugby league player in 2007.

The NRL audit into the Melbourne Storm salary cap scandal ruled that the players “did not know” they were part of a financial doping scam. No appeal on that verdict.

Watson has hardly been lucky, but when compared with Richardson he does not seem unlucky. Whether intended or otherwise, doping – as conceived by WADA and its prohibited list – has consequences that governments and sports sign up to. In the process there are numerous stories of athletes who have inadvertently put themselves at risk of an anti-doping rule violation. Some of the penalties end careers. All of them either damage or destroy reputations.

Even if the Essendon players win their case in Switzerland, which most pundits believe is highly unlikely, WADA can appeal that decision. It could be 2017 before this anti-doping saga is over.