My team, right

I’ve been holding off on writing about the Essendon supplements saga. Though it doesn’t get a mention here, I follow each convoluted twist and turn with rapt interest. I spend half my day on Twitter or surfing favourite websites to get the latest news on the story. It’s the biggest story ever in AFL history, and my footy club is at the bleeding heart of it. If I haven’t written till now it’s because it is so big, now words can properly capture it; and because I’m so emotionally invested in the outcome.

I’ve been an Essendon member all my life, and a member of the club for all but a few years of that. I’ve attended hundreds and hundreds of games over the journey, from Windy Hill to the SCG. I’ve watched hundreds more on TV. I’ve stood in the outer in the rain watching the team train, I go to club functions, I read newspapers, contribute to forums, I’m a dead-set, full-on, died in the wool Bombres supporter. And proudly so – and never more so than now.

In the context of this saga my last comment will jar with many. According to public opinion Essendon is guilty, and Essendon heroes such as coach James Hird are the villains of the piece. What they are guilty of is not necessarily clear, but that seems beside the point. Every story must have a villain. In this story, the way it’s being told, that villain is the golden-haired boy Hird, and his cohorts. That’s the narrative being sold, and readily bought by a footballing public excited by the spectacle and wanting to see blood. It’s a disgrace.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post in my head in preparedness to putting it out here. I never did. On that occasion I was intending to write about the much hyped but ludicrous interview with the discredited former High Performance Manager from Essendon, Dean Robinson. The interview was a non-event in substantive terms, but added more to the sensationalist spectacle. There were no revelations and for the most part the interview came across as a vaguely coherent character assassination of James Hird. What was interesting to me was the public reaction.

On that night I came to understand that people want to hate. Once they have their mind-set they enjoy joining with the mob to feast on their chosen prey. This should not have been a surprise to me, but I guess I like to believe better. Though there no facts presented, and Robinson himself seemed a barely credible witness, the mob chose to believe the worst of his allegations, silly as they were, and to extrapolate from that an extra degree of evil.

At the time it called to mind the glory days of the Colosseum, and a Roman public baying for blood. For many, maybe most, this willingness to hate was born on party lines. Loyalties are tribal, and fans of one club will customarily hate another. That’s magnified in the case of Essendon, and Hird. Here is one of the power-houses of the competition, the club equal most successful in the history of the competition. To hate Essendon is not dissimilar to keying the fancy duco of a lovely car you can’t afford.

And Hird, the player, the coach, the man, he epitomised that remote unattainability, the sort of man everyone loves who follows, but in others inspires respect seeking a reason for disdain. Hird was one of the most decorated players of his time, Brownlow Medallist, Norm Smith Medallist, premiership captain, a wizard on the field, skilled, courageous, a regular match winner. Good looking too, as it turns out, articulate, intelligent, a beautiful wife and children, the golden-haired boy just a little too perfect. And so ripe for the hating.

All of a sudden both club and coach were embroiled in a scandal that grew and grew, and what a gift it was for those who wanted to do the club down, who wanted to mire James Hird, the golden boy, in the muck the rest of us have to live in. He, they, were Essendon, the team you’re born to hate if you’re not born to love. And over time that creaking bandwagon was joined by everyone wanting to join in on the act. But why?

Let’s go back to February. February 5 Essendon called a press conference to announce that they were opening themselves to investigation by ASADA, Australia’s anti-doping body. The prompt for this is now open to contention, but at the time the reason given was that the club had received disturbing news that suggested that the club’s supplements program may have been compromised. Days later in Canberra a joint announcement by the government and the Australian Crime Commission revealed that drug use and criminal involvement in sport was rife, claiming it to be the ‘blackest day’ in Australian sport. It was shocking, grandiose news, and joining the dots it looked bad for Essendon.

The months go by. ASADA conducts its investigation. There is huge pressure upon the team, and on Hird, but contrary to expectations the team fires under the pressure of adversity. Stirring wins against the odds become common. When it is suggested that James Hird should stand down he is defiant and refuses. It’s clear by now that the club believes they have done nothing wrong, that the worst fears of that February day – that Essendon players had been given illegal supplements and peptides – are false. Governance issues have been uncovered, and people lost their jobs as a result. Now we’re waiting for the investigation to run its course.

Throughout there has been a running commentary in the press, much of it vindictive, and unhelpful comments from the side of his mouth by the competition CEO (who is in this up to his neck). Outlandish accusations are levelled against different figures in the club, with little to substantiate the claims. Unfortunately the hands of the club, of the people being vilified, are tied due to confidentiality agreements with ASADA. Basically the media can say what they like and the people accused are unable to defend themselves. Instead the claims go unchallenged, and pass into fact in the public’s collective opinion.

At the same time it is evident that selected journalists are being fed information falling out of the ASADA investigation. This is illegal, but it continues. One can only presume the source of the leaks, but most likely it is the AFL itself. The purpose of this strategic leaking appears to prepare the public for severe sanctions against Essendon. The public, like the drones who watch tabloid news programs, swallow the pap they’re being fed. And so over a period of months public opinion is manipulated a series  by untruths and insinuations that the subjects can’t respond to.

Fast forward to last week, and a version of the ASADA report is finally delivered. It’s a 400 page ‘interim’ report, confidential to the parties involved. What we now is that there are no drug infractions. What does that mean? It means that ASADA could not find evidence of any Essendon player being administered illegal drugs. There, the whole premise of the investigation called in February, disappears in a puff of smoke.

By now it’s too late, however. The public is baying for the blood the AFL, and its minions in the press, have promised it. The AFL goes to Essendon to impose charges. Charges? For what? Essendon asks. If we didn’t do the crime then what are we guilty of? Ah. For bringing the game into disrepute.

That’s a sneaky, catch-all charge. It basically means that even though you’re not guilty of administering illegal supplements we can still get you because it’s a bad look that we had to investigate you. As someone else wrote, it’s like being accused of robbing a bank, getting off the charge, but being found guilty because people thought you might be guilty.

This is pretty much where it stands right now. The AFL went to negotiate but gave nothing, and Essendon basically said fuck you, we’ll see you in court. What’s at stake here, quite reasonably, are people’s reputations – four of them. They believe they have done nothing wrong. They do a deal and the perception will forever be that they’re guilty. They want to clear their name once and for all. So they should.

In the face of this the AFL have continued their dirty game. The report which supposedly only a few people have seen has been leaked again in dribs and sensationalist drabs. Every bit of it is designed to make the club and Hird look bad. It’s designed to outrage an unquestioning public and to increase the pressure on the club. The public swallow it, to a degree, even though much of it is pretty comical. Yesterday’s report was about some shady drugs coming in from Mexico the players might have taken. Today it was corrected. Not Mexico, New Mexico. Today’s report is about injections and drugs, making it seem extreme – when in fact the drugs they name are legal (and probably in use at most clubs), and the injections amount to one a week. Unfortunately to a public conditioned to not look far beyond the headline, it has an effect. It looks bad because it is painted bad, when in fact it is innocuous – and, bottom line, is nothing untoward in terms of legality, as the ASADA report confirms.

This is the way it is. These are the desperate and tawdry tactics of an organisation that wants to drag us back to the negotiating table and submit. There will be more headlines tomorrow, and the day after, likely more sensational and scandalous than the next. We know that they have co-opted a rival coach to attack us publically. They are doing everything they can to besmirch us. But hey – it doesn’t matter. Truth matters. If it goes to court then the truth will come out, and none of this rubbish will matter a whit.

What this has done is rouse the Essendon supporters. We are pretty much as one on this. We know when we’re being bullied. We know the AFL is trying to railroad us to save themselves. None of us will take it. If it goes to court, then so be it. My personal view is that if it goes to court that Essendon will win handsomely because the AFL and others have transgressed so badly, and that includes the CEO. They’ve broken the law repeatedly, and in fact the joint investigation bf ASADA and the AFL may well be invalid. And that’s not mention the press, some of whom are looking at libel actions once the dust settles on this.

I have never been more proud of my team than now. They’ve been brave on field, and resolute off it. It would be easy to roll over and cop an unfair whack and be done with it. That wouldn’t be just though. Here is a situation that should resonate with Australians everywhere, of years past at least: the big end of town ganging up and picking on one of its members to get its way. It’s the Australian way not to succumb to bullying. It’s the Australian way to support the underdog. Well, get on board now, because this underdog is about to get the upper hand. #StandByHird

*Much more to this story btw, including much that has yet to be published anywhere.

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