Optical Illusions

 

So the deal-making behind James Hird’s 12-month suspension is finally apparent.  

The Herald-Sun’s Mark Robinson sums up this whole grubby, expedient business in today’s column. 

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/sport/afl/robbo-hearing-was-an-illusion/story-fni5f6kv-1226774671068

Personally, I could never work out how the AFL had managed to distance itself from the scandal once it had accused Essendon of bringing the game into disrepute. The allegation (and it was never more than an allegation) was that Essendon’s governance of its supplements program had been poor. I think Essendon and James Hird would agree they could have done it better, but what of the AFL boss Andrew Demetriou?

Former Test cricketer Bruce Francis understood the story better than most journalists, certainly those who have relentlessly backed the AFL’s pursuit of Essendon and James Hird. As an independent observer, he wrote to me in August to raise questions about the AFL’s responsibility for occupational health and safety at Essendon. His point was that when a player signs up to play for a club, he signs a tripartite deal, between himself, the club and the AFL. Sounds dull and dry but it’s devastating to the AFL’s claim it has no legal responsibility. 

It’s inarguable that the AFL has a direct legal responsibility to ensure that its clubs provide a safe working environment. So when the AFL’s integrity officer Brett Clothier is alleged to have warned James Hird about peptides in August 2011 there should  have been a process undertaken to monitor and resolve any concerns. Nothing happened. The AFL did nothing with the information until its peculiar joint investigation with the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority began much later.

Months ago, the AFL admitted that it could have done more to stop Essendon’s supplements program.

Despite claiming credit for warning Essendon, AFL deputy chief executive Gillon McLachlan admitted on SEN radio that: “the fact that we weren’t out there regularly monitoring the situation is potentially a failure of the AFL. There is responsibility all round here.”

Oh yes responsibility all round…but only Essendon staff and James Hird copped any sanction, the heaviest penalties in the history of the AFL.

The AFL looks hopelessly conflicted in this. It was carrying out a joint investigation with ASADA when it quite properly should have been under scrutiny from the same investigation itself. It has dodged all its legal responsibility for maintaining a safe workplace at AFL clubs. If my son were going to a club, I would expect better. Instead, the public has witnessed the AFL doing all it can to find a scapegoat and absolve itself of any blame.

Many people believe that James Hird et al pleaded guilty to lesser charges and accepted bans based on a hearing that took place. Andrew Demetriou has said as much in interviews but it’s demonstrably false. There was never any hearing, no lesser charges, no AFL Commission-sanctioned penalties. There was a deal, a typical back room deal because the AFL could not afford to end up in the Supreme Court explaining its version of justice. Now we learn that the AFL and Essendon offered to keep Hird on full pay and stump up for an overseas study tour if he accepted his year-long suspension.(Demetriou has now denied any knowledge of this.) While it might have been better for the game if Hird went to the Supreme Court, I don’t blame him for taking a deal in the end. He would never have coached again at any club had he not done so. 

Yes, as Robbo said in the Herald Sun today, this was all about the optics. And watch the eyes grow wider as more stories tumble out in the coming days. I’m glad to see cricket back on the front and back of our newspapers again but this story has a long way to run.

UPDATE: Andrew Demetriou has defended his position telling The Age:
there were discussions between John Wylie and Little before the AFL Commission “hearing” into the supplements scandal, but disputed details in News Limited reports published overnight.

“There are always negotiations before any hearing…” Demetriou said.

He admitted that AFL employees, including Gillon McLachlan, had discussions with Essendon and Hird before the AFL Commission hearing, but insisted he had no knowledge of the substance of such meetings. Isn’t that convenient?

There may well be negotiations before AFL Commission hearings. But in this case there was plenty of negotiating but no hearing.

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