A Federal Court ruling on the ASADA v Essendon saga is pending. So how did it all come to this? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

How the Essendon Bombers crashed to earth

James Hird addresses his players during a 2012 game.

In many ways this story begins in 1990, when the legend of James Hird was conceived. It was the start of a new era, the rebadging of the Victorian Football League as the Australian Football League – the code’s old parochialism softening in favour of national expansion. Despite the optimism, 1990 was an exceptionally fallow player draft. With only one exception, none of the nearly 100 rookie players would greatly distinguish themselves in their careers. But despite the paucity, and it then being only a 14-team league, James Hird was selected 79th. He was a junk pick and things augured dimly for young Hird – the AFL market was signalling its belief in a short and unheralded career. 

But drafting back then was crude – clubs selected on portentous guesswork, not calculation. A former AFL player, who wishes to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the Essendon story, told me: “I think the draft back then was more luck than science, and I’m sure there were reasons why Hird fell through. I think [Age sports writer] Rohan Connolly did a thing recently where he looked at draft picks from the ’90s. Lots of top 10s did nothing, lots of rookies and late picks did good things.”

More luck than science. Within three years, Hird would have his first premiership flag with Essendon Football Club and be an integral part of the “Baby Bombers”. In another three years he would win the Brownlow Medal – the league’s coveted best-and-fairest award. The following year he was included in Essendon’s “Team of the Century”. The 79th draft pick was still only 24 years old.

Hird was a highly intelligent player, elegant and intuitive. He appeared to play with an effortless efficiency, presumably because he always knew where to be. Beside him, less gifted players seemed rushed or brutish. Hird took his time. He was not physically imposing, but he endeared himself to fans by not shirking on the ball. He endeared himself to the sports press by giving calm and thoughtful grabs, unblemished by a stuttering fusillade of “ums” and “you knows”. 

The ex-AFL player I spoke to once tagged Hird. “I was always nervous when he was around the ball … Obviously he was good, but I think he was well respected for the way he went about it. It was always assumed that if he had a quiet game, it went a way to stopping Essendon, but that was when they weren’t going so well. I also heard older teammates talk about how fit he was and how hard he worked on the field. He was tall, fit, agile and a good mark, so he was very difficult to play on.” 

Hird’s focus, articulacy and anodyne manner made him a natural face for the league. He presented like a polite private schoolboy, unthreatening and admirable. While other stars were engaged in squalid self-destruction, there was never the sniff of scandal around Hird. No sexual impropriety, drug-laced benders or brawls. He seemed as clean off the field as he was effective on it. 

But within this polished exterior was a blistering will to succeed. In many ways, Hird’s career should never have existed. First the incongruously low draft pick, then the grim series of injuries suffered late in the ’90s. In career best form after winning the Brownlow in ’96, Hird played only 22 games total in the three years that followed – in less than a third of total matches. In round two of the ’99 season, Hird returned, only to redo a stress fracture in his foot. He limped to the bench in tears. There’s a famous photo of Hird’s capitulation – as he sits in the dugout, teammates stretch their necks towards the unfolding game. They’re utterly absorbed. Hird, though, is alone – slumped and disconsolate, he believes his career is likely to be over. 

It wasn’t. Hird rehabilitated himself, then captained the Bombers the next year to their first premiership since 1992. Miraculously, they lost just one match the entire season. But then, in 2002, Hird was involved in a sickening on-field collision when he stumbled and fell into the knee of teammate Mark McVeigh. A third of his face collapsed. TV images showed him stand, dazed, his face half crimson. Sports doctor Peter Larkins spoke to Channel Nine about the injury at the time. “He has a compound fracture, which means the bone was exposed to the outside surface,” he said. “It’s a five-part fracture incorporating most of the left eye socket but it does go into the forehead. It does go into the nose, it goes into the upper teeth and goes across to the right side of his face.

“His whole middle third of his face got shifted to the right side when he got hit on the left side. All the sinus has exploded – that’s why he can’t fly on a plane. This is an injury we normally see in motor-car accidents. It’s a common trauma injury in high-velocity accidents.”

This being Hird, he returned the same season after he underwent surgery to reconstruct his face. He wore a protective helmet for a time, and the following year finished just two votes behind in the Brownlow Medal. “There was obviously an incredible will, particularly coming back from injuries,” the ex-AFL player tells me about Hird. “I feel like – and I’m guessing – the face injury would be harder to come back from. I guess there’s an acceptance that joint, bone and muscle injuries are part of the game, but when it’s face and head things, it must be very difficult to maintain your courage after an injury like that. I’m not sure if it changed the way he played, but I think I would’ve found it hard to come back from.”

An investigator familiar with the ASADA (Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority) case against Essendon said to me: “I’m speculating, but I think there’s a feeling of indomitability to him. Not quite bulletproof, but close. He’s been through so much and he’s always come out the other side.” 

When Hird retired in 2007, his legend was secured – and regularly burnished in that loving, unthinking way of idolatry. Hird became an avatar for every legend of decency and duty in the AFL, and a kind of secular saint to Bombers fans. Three years later, with no coaching experience, he returned to the club’s Windy Hill headquarters as senior coach. It seemed right. 

1 . Unorthodox regimens

In the 1990s, Stephen Dank studied for a master’s degree in sports science at the University of New South Wales. It is unclear if he graduated – there are no records to confirm it – but Dank liked to tell people he did. Soon after, he began assiduously courting football teams, offering himself as a biochemist with rare and powerful abilities. Dank has since been variously described to me by police and reporters as “a conman”, “a crook” and “a rogue” – and earlier this year he was arrested on suspicion of theft – but professional clubs’ unquenchable desire for a competitive edge meant he was soon employed by five rugby league teams as an adviser. Dank offered absurdly unorthodox regimens – such as injecting players’ tissue with calf blood – and performed DNA profiles. It also appears that Dank massively exaggerated his knowledge of genetics. A picture has now emerged of a dud scientist but a gifted shyster. In late 2011, after spending years with rugby league clubs, Dank was employed by Essendon. 

There were much earlier signs of Dank’s corruption. The adviser to his master’s degree, Professor Kevin Norton, warned the Adelaide Crows Football Club about him when he applied for a position there about 2010. “I suggested they don’t go near him,” Norton told The Advertiser. “It was genetic testing which appeared to be gimmicky, costly and to no obvious benefit and that was what my opinion was to the club. It wasn’t just the idea it was going to be expensive but it was crossing the threshold where I was comfortable. Some clubs fell for it. I have since recommended people avoid him.” 

So Dank went elsewhere. Between the NRL and Essendon, he was briefly hired by new AFL club the Gold Coast Suns. Too many clubs wanted to believe Dank. His chutzpah partnered perfectly with their credulity. This week, 11 players from the Cronulla Sharks, an NRL club that hired Dank, received show-cause notices for the regulated substance thymosin beta-4. 

There is an obvious and sizeable failure of governance at Essendon. There was already a smell to Dank, but the club folded him into their operations anyway. There is also a duty of care issue: the ex-AFL player pointed me towards an article on the almost familial faith players have in their team staff. Their age and the clearly regimented structure of a professional footy club begs their unquestioning deference. They trust their doctors, as we do – in fact, even more. “I feel sorry for the players,” the ex-player said. “The AFL and ASADA tell players every year as part of the annual education that if you have any questions about meds, ask your doctor. It’s implied that the doctor has your best interests at heart and understands the [World Anti-Doping Agency] WADA/ASADA code. Therefore, whatever the doc says is the best course of action, you accept it. There’s also not really anyone else to get a second opinion from.”

But Essendon knew – as all clubs are required to know – that doping enforcement does not recognise ignorance as an excuse, and it prosecutes individuals. To permit ignorance is to essentially render doping laws moot – a rash of wilful and confected ignorance would quickly flourish. Given the players’ individual vulnerability to prosecution, their trust in the club is enormous. Resultantly, so is the responsibility of the club.  

2 . First doubts

On February 5, 2013 Essendon voluntarily reported its doubts about Dank’s program to ASADA. Then a press conference was called. Hird said: “As a coach I take full responsibility for what happens in our footy department. If there have been goings on within our football department that are not right we want to know. But it’s my belief though that we have done everything right and that … the supplements that our players were given … were all approved and within the regulations that we all play the games by.”

This triggered a specific investigation, although last week the then head of ASADA, Aurora Andruska, testified that Essendon was being investigated under a broader inquiry as far back as 2011. The ASADA investigation was headed by John Nolan, formerly of the Office of Police Integrity, and nicknamed “the cockroach” for the endurance of his career. 

But there was a problem. Under existing legislation, ASADA was not empowered to compel player co-operation. The AFL was. A joint investigation was then forged, enabling not so much a sharing of powers, but the information wrought from them. But this meant that privileged investigative information was less protected, and the AFL could pre-empt the direction of the investigation. It is now widely speculated that the AFL was leaking information to certain journalists. What is also widely speculated is that the leaking was part of a media strategy – only details on Essendon seemed to be getting out, and the speculation is that the story was being massaged, localised to Essendon when they knew other clubs had been pushing the boundaries of their own supplements regimens. Hird became the lightning rod.

An investigator familiar with the case told me: “The AFL were arrogant. And not just on this. It’s hard to think of any other international sporting leagues that would have fumbled this badly. And it’s not just how they’ve handled this. There’s declining crowds, inflated ticket prices, oversaturation, the match review panel, and also scheduling and TV rights issues.” 

ASADA has fumbled, too. Its initial allegations against Essendon were that the club had used outlawed substance AOD-9604, an anti-obesity drug and one that Essendon captain Jobe Watson believes he was injected with. But ASADA never clarified their position on the drug, causing significant confusion. While the drug was at the time on the banned list compiled by the World Anti-Doping Agency, it was banned not as a performance enhancer but simply because it had not yet been approved. It has now achieved supplement approval in the United States, but remains on ASADA’s banned substances list. Despite this, ASADA is now no longer pursuing Essendon players for it. 

The drug or drugs in question now are forms of thymosin – naturally occurring proteins. One form in question is thymosin beta-4, produced in the thymus gland and spleen, and believed to help regenerate cells. However, it is alleged that Dank also produced synthetic versions. Thymosin beta-4 exists problematically on the Australian Crime Commission’s banned substances list, subject, as it is, to the unhelpfully vague concept of “the spirit of the sport”. Thymosins occur naturally and are used not so much for enhancing performance, but for healing. ASADA has been as inadequate in stating clearly its position on these various drugs as it has been in actually verifying what Essendon players were injected with. It is highly likely that, due to terrible record management, only Stephen Dank knows. 

Just days after Essendon reported him to ASADA, the federal sports minister Kate Lundy and home affairs minister Jason Clare convened a press conference. They were flanked by a dozen sports administrators, including AFL chief Andrew Demetriou. The occasion was the Australian Crime Commission’s release of its anti-doping report, after an investigation dubbed Project Aperio. It was polished theatre, solemn and compelling, as Clare intoned that organised crime had infiltrated Australian sport and an ex-ASADA head famously remarked that this “was the blackest day in Australian sport”.

 Labor were hungry for a win then; Lundy desperate for a scalp. But for all of the solemnity – the crafted sense of showdown at high noon – there has been precious little to come of that press conference. Either the threat was spectacularly overstated, or ASADA can boast little efficacy. It is one or the other. This week, prime minister Tony Abbott referred to it as an “absolutely pathetic” political distraction, “silly, squalid and sordid.” 

3 . Under siege

In May 2013, Essendon CEO Ian Robson resigned. He was followed by club chairman David Evans in July. Remarkably, Essendon were still performing well on the field, floating around the top four on the ladder. By regular season’s end, Essendon had faltered slightly, but still finished seventh, qualifying for the finals. It didn’t matter. In late August last year, the AFL handed down its penalties: the club would forfeit its spot in the finals, placing ninth; a fine of $2 million; the removal of draft picks; various fines imposed upon individuals; and the 12-month suspension of James Hird. Hird was appalled. 

A few months ago, things escalated again. ASADA issued 34 show-cause notices to 34 former and current Essendon players. Some have retired, others have changed clubs. But the large core of those 34 remain at the Bombers. A show-cause notice is a legal notification asking those who receive it to “show cause” that they have been served unfairly. The 34 players must demonstrate they have never been injected with thymosin beta-4. They are being collectively legally represented, and a possible penalty is a two-year suspension from any involvement with the game at any level.

This significantly elevated the danger to Essendon, and it prompted the club to piggyback on James Hird’s case against the AFL and ASADA. Last week, in the Federal Court, Essendon’s and Hird’s lawyers argued that the joint investigation was illegal, that information gleaned in ASADA investigations was privileged and could not be used for AFL disciplinary matters. Also, that ASADA had breached its confidentiality agreements by allowing AFL representatives to be party to interviews. Ergo, the player interviews are invalid. 

Meanwhile, ASADA’s lawyers argued that even if evidence is now deemed invalid, and the show-cause notices are withdrawn, under new legislation they could reacquire the evidence and have the notices reissued within 24 hours. This trial, they argued, was simply a delaying tactic by a club desperate to evade justice. 

The three-day trial ended last Wednesday and Justice John Middleton has retired to consider the verdict. It’s expected to take weeks. 

This could now go one of a few ways, but no one emerges looking good. There is a doomsday scenario, triggered by the legally maintained validity of the 34 show-cause notices. This could very likely lead to the long-term suspension of most of their players, and expose Essendon to a spray of bankruptcy inducing civil actions claiming loss of income. If a player were suspended for two years, it would effectively end his career. In this doomsday scenario, the solvency of the club might need to be guaranteed by the AFL, possibly via amalgamation with another club. For a foundation team – and the most successful in the league – this would be unthinkable. 

During the trial, Hird suggested another scenario: the Samson option. Hird was determined to voice his contempt of the AFL, and get his point across that league officials had “induced”, “stressed” and used “duress” to extract Essendon’s compliance. Hird offered these as non sequiturs, so desperate was he to have that on record. Hird is a man on fire, who believes utterly that he’s been subject to rotten machinations. 

Hird’s insistent, but he hasn’t unleashed everything he knows yet. That would be the Samson option: calling an embittered and dangerously candid press conference, and lending his articulacy to push on the pillars of the AFL hierarchy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "The Bombers’ crash to earth".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.