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Essendon scandal a symptom of Australia’s sporting woes

The Australian Crime Commission report released last week, Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport, claims Australian sport, especially at the professional level, has a serious drug use problem. According to…

Coach of Essendon James Hird talks with assistant coach Mark Thompson in 2011. AAP/Martin Philbey

The Australian Crime Commission report released last week, Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport, claims Australian sport, especially at the professional level, has a serious drug use problem.

According to the ACC, this problem centres on the use of products – and especially peptide hormones - often marketed as supplements, but which can also contain banned substances. These peptide hormones comprise a complex arrangement of amino acids, and while some are quite benign, being similar to whey-protein supplements that can be purchased over the counter, others are more potent, and have the capacity to stimulate the production of growth hormones in the pituitary gland.

These Growth Hormone Releasing Peptides (GHRPs) are, according to the ACC, used across a broad spread of sports, and have become a performance-enhancing substance of choice. And, as the ACC politely notes, GHRPs are mostly banned under the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). As a result, their use could be in violation of anti-doping rules.

The ACC also noted it has been able to identify individuals with “extensive criminal associations” building “business partnerships with major Australian sporting codes”. This development is not only demonstrably unhealthy from an organisational perspective, but it was also hinted that this relationship may adversely influence the behaviour of some club officials. The report stated the ACC had evidence to suggest some coaches, sports scientists and support staff had “orchestrated and/or condoned the use of prohibited substances and/or methods of administration”.

Suddenly, the major drug-use scandal that erupted at the Essendon Football Club earlier this week comes as less of a shock. At Essendon, it was discovered players had been given a mysterious cocktail of supplements during the 2012 season, and as a result of subsequent player concerns about their efficacy and legitimacy, the club’s senior officials decided to seek advice from the AFL Commission and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA).

Supplements are usually not a problem since, for the most part, they are freely available over the counter. They are relatively benign from a health-risk perspective, and they do not usually contain substances that are banned under the WADA anti-doping code. In the Essendon case, though, things may have been different.

First, it has been alleged by former player Kyle Reimers, but challenged by fellow former Bomber Mark McVeigh, that players were asked to sign a waiver transferring the risk of use from the club to the player.

Second, the so-called supplement was allegedly administered by injection rather than taken orally, and was done off site, presumably in a doctor’s surgery or medical centre.

Third, it appeared players were not fully informed about the nature of the supplement, its chemical composition, and where it fell within the WADA regulations.

Finally, and even more strangely, it’s possible neither the club’s chief medical officer, nor the head-coach, were aware players were taking this substance.

The Essendon case deserves serious interrogation for a number of reasons. Problems will always arise when supplements are used without proper knowledge about their contents, efficacy, and legitimacy.

Players have the right to know what they are putting into their bodies, and supervisors who fail to do this are derelict in their professional responsibilities. Players are often not well informed on technical issues, and are therefore vulnerable to the pronouncements of medical officers, coaches and trainers.

It’s also clear that the Essendon’s communication network was unbelievably inadequate. It is amazing that such an important issue like a “mass” substance injection was apparently not fully understood by almost everybody that had an interest in actually being well-informed on the matter. Either the players’ supervisor had an enormous amount of autonomy, and was free to use his professional capabilities to engineer his own player improvement program, or the coaching and medical staff did know what was going on, but were confident no rules were being broken or player rights were being denied.

Whatever actually happened in this case – and we still only partly understand what transpired over the course of the 2012 season - it does not reflect all that well on the management of the Essendon Football Club, and the responsibility it has for the protection of the health and well-being of its players.

The claim this “mystery supplement” may have secured the players an unfair advantage, and was therefore a not-too-subtle example of cheating, has merit. However, it pales into relative insignificance when contrasted with the club’s cavalier attitude to the rights of players, and its shambolic organisational communication system.

The ACC report and the related Essendon incident have two important implications for the progress of Australian sport.

At the micro level it suggests the football club has a lot to do both on and off the field of play if it wants to reclaim its position as one of Australia’s leading sports clubs.

At the macro level, it is now time to reconsider sports’ drug regulation regime, and begin to look at alternatives to its punitive and coercive ethos. One such approach is introduce a model of “disclosure regulation” that forces clubs and players to state their supplement and drug use protocols, and make them subject to public scrutiny.

This will lead to greater transparency, enhanced accountability, and a more mature and rational way of managing a troublesome social practice.

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4 Comments sorted by

  1. Trevor Kerr

    ISTP

    Hi Bob
    I left a pseudonymous comment, at Michael Burke's post, on the parlous state of sports science. However, in the case of EFC, the longer the delay to reveal what went on, the greater the risk to the club. So, IMO, they'd be well advised to employ the services of a specialist risk communicator. The time has past for minimising the actual hazards, they must get out on the front foot to the public, their customers.
    Seems to me, on the matter of disclosure, it's moot whether the substances were…

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  2. Jason Mazanov

    Senior Lecturer, School of Business, UNSW-Canberra at UNSW Australia

    Bob:

    Another excellent piece refocusing the debate onto what matters - the welfare of the people who get on the paddock each week to entertain us. The entirety of the ACC and Essendon events point to a massive exploitation culture in Australian sport.

    This goes to a key argument that I think needs much more air play - we need to rethink Australian professional sport to put athlete health and welfare at the top of our priorities. But then, both of us have been saying that for a very, very long time.

    Best wishes,

    Jason

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  3. Simon Outram

    Postdoctoral Research - Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living (ISEAL) at Victoria University

    Whatever the health benefits of sports in general, elite sport is a commercial enterprise with employers (clubs), employees (athletes), and a market (ticket payers, TV subscriptions, and advertisers among others). Given the sums of money involved we should not be too surprised that match-fixing goes on, or that employers (clubs) are prepared to push regulations to the limit in order to succeed. However, we can be surprised – and rightly horrified - that players are either coerced or partially accepting…

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  4. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    from what i've read.Essendon players were requested to sign consent forms in the presence of their coach. Some think that should have got the alarm bells ringing but no doubt they were given a convincing explanation about the need for evidence of consent and anyway we're talking about quite young players as well. The Players Assoc now is offering funding for legal action against the Club.

    No doubt that officials adopted the see,hear no evil attitude.

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