Essendon drugs crisis: more questions than answers in Switkowski’s half-baked report

‘Deeply sorry’: Essendon chairman David Evans announced the findings of the Switkowski report into governance issues at the AFL club. AAP/David Crosling

From the outset, Ziggy Switkowski defined his report on Essendon’s supplements program as “constrained” because two parallel investigations could not be compromised.

What Swiztowski calls constrained could more accurately be termed “failure”, as the independent investigation into controversial activities at Essendon could not be fully revealed.

Essendon had good intentions to lay bare its administrative practices and controversial supplements program but the report falls short of expectations. It’s flawed. The AFL and ASADA “parallel” reviews no doubt restricted Switkowski’s charter to present a full perspective of Essendon’s internal workings.

Information on the compliance of Essendon’s supplements program with anti-doping codes is described as “no go” area, as:

Questions about the pharmacology of certain supplements, their possible performance-affecting properties, compliance or otherwise with anti-doping codes, etc, are issues for the AFL and ASADA investigations, which still have some way to go.

This statement is a classic “handball” – towards the turf where the AFL and ASADA are wading through considerable evidence. The independent review fails to confront the issues the AFL and its fans were hoping for.

The report is also a “no go” zone on the practices of sports scientist Stephen Dank, whose services were terminated at Essendon last year. Speculative reports on Dank’s methods continue to surface, but swift action is needed for the truth to prevail.

Switkowski reported an abnormal level of activity in the supplements program created:

… a disturbing picture of a pharmacologically experimental environment never adequately controlled or challenged or documented within the club in the period under review.

The program was characterised with:

… the rapid diversification into exotic supplements, sharp increase in frequency of injections, the shift to treatment offsite in alternative medicine clinics, emergence of unfamiliar suppliers.

This confirms what has already been reported in the media. There was a disturbing revelation that the supplements program contributed to the “marginalisation of traditional medical staff”. Dr Bruce Reid, an experienced club doctor who has served Essendon since 1982, was on the outer, as the supplements program created issues within the medical department.

It is absurd that “exotic” supplements were given to players when they had not been medically cleared by more qualified personnel. This allowed a rampant use of supplements, which in hindsight, didn’t appear to generate a performance advantage. The Bombers crashed to finish 11th on the 2012 AFL premiership ladder, losing ten of their last 13 matches.

The Bombers’ form slump last year raises the following questions. Did the Essendon players ride on a psychological high after winning the eight of their first nine games, knowing they were taking “cutting-edge” supplements? How effective were these “exotic” supplements to match-day performance? Did the supplements help accelerate recovery and help repair the players’ soft tissue?

The report reveals that methods used by the fitness staff “were always legal and compliant”. While Essendon senior coach James Hird reportedly insisted that all supplements “must be WADA and ASADA compliant”, the report revealed recording and monitoring processes were inadequate.

Switkowski reported that all club activities fell under the responsibility of the chief executive, who must oversee football operations. This statement takes the pressure off the football men, the key operators who have been scrutinised in the media.

“If commercial priorities consume his (the chief executive’s) time and attention, steps must be taken to ensure proper oversight of football operations,” Switkowski reported.

The responsibility of the questionable practices swings away from the coach and football department leaders, the report reveals. Is this a sign that Essendon’s business leaders are claiming some blame for the dysfunctional practices in the football division? Or is this purely one of Switkowski’s findings?

Who looks after the football division – the chief executive, the football manager or the coach? It seems that workplace standards need a complete overhaul at the club, which has seen a huge turnover of personnel after the reign of Kevin Sheedy ended in 2007.

Several key figures at Essendon - including CEO Ian Robson and coach James Hird - have been so far spared from having their jobs placed in jeopardy over the drugs saga. AAP/David Crosling

It appears the football department passed the buck internally when it came to documenting usage in its supplements program. While all clubs are focused on pushing the boundaries to find the winning edge, Essendon’s lack of stringent monitoring appears to be a key factor in triggering the supplements investigation.

The AFL expects its clubs to operate professionally, and while the Switkowski report exposes some gaping holes in football operations, the clubs will be forced to tighten up its procedures to prevent such a scandal from disrupting the club.

The report raises many questions. The mess is still unresolved as football fans pore over details of a deficient club. But the main question relates to accountability. Who will be accountable for Essendon’s mismanagement? Will there be a sacrificial lamb?

Key men at Essendon are holding on for dear life. Meanwhile the results of the AFL and ASADA reviews threaten to derail the Bombers’ first-class year.