Chaos ball

Last night in the dark I drove across town with my mind consumed by the events of the hours before. Late in the day I heard that the coach of my football team, James Hird, had decided to appeal a recent court decision, as is his right. The rumours that attended that news that as a result the board were likely to sack him. As I drove the Bayside streets, 15 kilometres to the north the annual B&F count was commencing. This is an event I have attended before, and desperately wanted to this time as well. I wondered at the mood there, wondered how I would be or what I would say had I attended. It was better that I did not, especially as the man himself, legend of our club, James, had been asked not to come.

The morning after the newspapers are full of dire speculation reported with glee. The board has met to discuss the situation, and in the meantime Hird has formally lodged his application to appeal. His statement in support of that is worth reading. *

I don’t know how the day will unfold. I find it hard to believe that a man can be dismissed from his job because he chooses to pursue his legal right. He may be asked to step aside pending the appeal. This is a hugely divisive issue. The future of the club I have followed all my life is at stake. So to are notions of justice. The man at the centre of this divides opinion even among Essendon supporters who love him. Many just want the saga done, no matter what that means. Others refuse to accept a deal that infers guilt when there is yet to be any evidence or proof of wrongdoing. So much of the world wants this swept under the carpet – the AFL, most AFL supporters, ASADA, and those Essendon supporters sick of it. I’m not one of them. I’m with Hird, and stalwarts all the way. I won’t accept guilt just to be convenient.

James Hird is probably my favourite footballer of all time. I’ll post some justification for that later. He was a wonderful and courageous footballer, and idol to every Essendon supporter. Doubtless there’s some element of the fanboy in continuing to support him, but it goes deeper than that.

I’ll go on record for the umpteenth time that I want more than a resolution, I want justice. Justice may mean that the charges are true and the club I’ve loved (further) penalised. If that’s to be then I’ll accept it with regret. In the absence of any evidence, and everything I have learned, I’m confident that they’re innocent. The principle remains though, I want to know.

Had there been a just and competent investigation then we should have known 12 months ago. Instead backroom deals were done between the AFL and ASADA – now fully exposed – that meant that the outcomes of the investigation were contrived. I feel sure that the AFL entered into the investigation convinced the club was guilty, and entered into arrangements with that expectation. As the investigation continued and no evidence was produced the goal-posts shifted. In the middle of this was Hird and the players, all of them certain they had done nothing wrong, but now being manipulated by the AFL and ASADA in concert with each other – which is essentially what the court case is about. The players and Hird had no voice. The investigators picked through the testimonies they received and selected what they liked, and disregarded what they didn’t. All throughout the media went ballistic, fed by targeted leaks designed to make both Hird and the club appear guilty because that suited the narrative. Read a newspaper from 12 months ago and it is mostly hysterical nonsense, most, if not all, later discredited. That doesn’t play now. People remember the headlines. The truth is forgotten, or never heard.

Rather than reach a judgement ASADA produced a heavily doctored report which the AFL trumpeted as justification for their hard stand, playing to the media and the baying masses, while Hird was muted. Ultimately, after much wrangling, the report was the basis of penalties the AFL handed down to Hird and the club. Though proclaiming his innocence still Hird ultimately agreed for the good of the club. He was suspended for 12 months.

The deal between the AFL and ASADA meant that should have been the end of it, tawdry as it was. It was the promise made to Essendon club officials. Then a change of CEO at ASADA changed that this year. Contrary to their agreement the new head of ASADA chose to issue show cause notices. This was the final straw for the club, and Hird. They began court proceedings challenging the legality of the joint investigation. Though it was said to be a strong case, it was comprehensively rejected by the judge. That’s the decision that Hird is now challenging.

This is an absolute shambles. You have a corrupt (and fumbling) AFL, an incompetent ASADA, and a vacillating EFC, caught between standing up for itself and doing what the boss – the AFL – says. That’s why Hird is now on the verge of being sacked.

It’s only a few weeks since the club and Hird were shoulder to shoulder in court. They lost the case, but the advice since is that an appeal would be successful. The AFL don’t want that. They want this to go away, and they don’t want any more of their dirty laundry aired. I’m sure the AFL has leant on the club to pull their appeal. James Hird was never anyone who could be leant upon. He always played the game his own way. The AFL is desperate to prevent him from appealing, and I’m sure are now threatening the club that if they don’t stop Hird from appealing then there will be repercussions. The club is the meat in the sandwich, but had it shown more balls earlier this situation may never have arisen.

Hird wants justice, that should be clear to even the dimmest of observers. He knows that he, and the players, are innocent, and is unwilling to accept any other verdict than that. He, the club, and the players, have been railroaded for too long. Quite reasonably he has no faith in the processes of the AFL and ASADA, which seem to bear little relation to what is right.

I have to support him in this. I applaud him for his conviction and determination, qualities that made him a great football player. He’s one tough bastard who has had enough, and now wants to expose the sordid wheeling and dealing that he and the club have been victims of. He’s a better man than me.

Still, I understand this on the deeper level too. This is a polarising issue, and with people’s abuse tolerance being a key factor in their attitude. There are many you know who will just roll over just to get it out of the way. That’s what happened in the NRL with several players ultimately pressured into admitting guilt to charges they disagreed with, just to get it done. That’s how ASADA rolls, justice has nothing to do with it.

Then there are the others, the stalwarts I called them. This smells rotten to them and they will never accept it. Right is right, truth is truth. Hird epitomises this. He’s willing to spend his own money to fund an appeal to get at the truth, to sacrifice his job if it comes to that. I understand that completely. I have something of that in me too. Once you begin fighting it’s hard to stop. You get caught up in the battle, in the rightness of your cause. Once you have fought for so long it feels almost impossible to step back from it. It’s not altogether healthy because there is something nihilistic in it. It’s for a just cause though, or so you are convinced.

How does it play out from here? My bet is that Hird will step aside or be suspended from the senior role until the appeal is concluded. There’s a huge groundswell of Essendon supporters vocal of their support of Hird, and threats of an EGM should the board sack Hird. The club must know this, and even the AFL must be wary of it. It’s spiralling out of control for them, and they must be terrified by what may come. Hird is the maverick out for just vengeance, and who knows how it will play out.

One last thing. In an age of cynical convenience it’s refreshing to see someone stand up for their belief in the face of such imposing opposition. The world needs more of that. You might hate him, but Hird is an example to us all.


* James Hird’s statement in support of his appeal:

I have today lodged an appeal with the Federal Court against the decision of Justice Middleton in Hird v Asada. I have been advised and believe that there are strong reasons why that decision is incorrect and that this is the proper and appropriate course to vindicate the legal rights of the EFC and its players.

The challenge to the lawfulness of the joint investigation was and is an important step in showing that the Essendon Football Club, its players and staff were submitted to a compromised investigation and were treated unfairly. If we don’t appeal our players may be stained forever by the innuendo, misconceptions and falsities that resulted from an investigation that we believe was conducted unlawfully.

It is important that an investigation based on unlawfully gathered information never occurs again to any person, sporting club or organization.

ASADA plays an extremely important role in the fight against drugs in sport and must work within the Act under which it operates.

Throughout my playing career I vehemently opposed the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport. My stance as a coach has been and is exactly the same.

At no time in the 2012 season did I believe any Essendon player was exposed to any supplement or drug that fell outside the WADA, ASADA or AFL code. Two years since the end of that season I still do not believe any Essendon player took anything illegal. No one has shown me any evidence that would lead me to believe differently.

I am extremely sorry for the pain this saga has caused the players of the Essendon Football Club, their families, the Essendon Football Club staff, the Essendon Football Club supporters and the football industry as a whole.

I am requesting expedition of this appeal and will not ask for a stay of the notices. The players and ASADA will be able to continue with the show cause process whilst a full court deals with the legality of the investigation.

I have not taken this decision lightly. I believe this is the right course or action and is in the best interests of the Essendon Football Club, its players, the supporters and the game.

The short term simple approach would be to acquiesce and plead guilty to ASADA even though the players, the club and myself do not believe we have breached the rules. It would be a lie as would pleading out of the proceedings when I, my lawyers and the Essendon Football Club lawyers firmly believe that the investigation was conducted unlawfully and an appeal will be successful.

1/4 time lead

Picture this: a middle-aged man sitting behind the reception desk of a massage shop in a busy street. It’s a cool day with sunshine breaking through the clouds. Inside the shop anodyne massage style music plays as if on a loop. No-one comes in. The phone rings twice, but one of the calls was from a recorded message. I sit here squinting at the screen of the shop laptop. As per everyday I am here I spend much of my time surfing the net looking for a diversion from the monotony of the day. Today though, is slightly different.

I’ve only posted occasionally about the ongoing drama about ASADA, the AFL, and my football club, Essendon. I have strong views on this, as do most loyal Essendon supporters. It’s fair to say this is a topic that has captivated the sporting, media and legal aficionado’s for Melbourne. For most it is a topic of fascination, and occasional ridicule. For the likes of me it’s just about life or death.

Though it’s not reflected in my posts here, or even in my social media utterances, I’m fully across this saga and follow it with rapt interest from day-to-day, minute to minute. If I were not a supporter I would still find it absolutely fascinating. As a supporter I’ve felt aggrieved for over a year now at what I felt to be a perversion of the process of justice. In essence that the club was rail-roaded by the AFL to protect its interests (and select arses), and that James Hird was made a scapegoat of.

For much of the wider sporting community this line of thinking has been treated with scorn. People like me have been called ‘Essendon ‘truthers’; and much worse. We’ve been seen as deluded, blinded by our love for the club and faith in our toppled coach. The funny thing is though that in the face of pretty damning accusations the faithful have rallied to the club. This episode has galvanised the support base and made them ask of themselves what they believe. For the majority they have felt their love for all things Essendon to be affirmed with a fervour perhaps not felt for some years. A situation like this divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. We have resoundingly found ourselves to be in the ‘us’ camp.

On Friday there was some vindication of that faith when documents were published revealing the level of corruption in the process. In short a (potentially illegal) joint investigation between ASADA and the AFL used powers they were not entitled to coerce testimony from players and club officials. They contrived a verdict and an outcome and doctored up the report to achieve that end – all this is revealed in direct quotes from the participants. They were at pains to leave out what did not suit their narrative, and to sex up some of the results – for example the scary concept of injections was beefed up when they found the actual number of supplement injections was disappointingly low. They decided to add in multi-vitamin injections to make it appear much more sinister. A level of political interference was also revealed.

It has to be said that the whole investigation has been farcical and seemingly incompetent virtually from the get go. Even the most critical of Essendon seem to have come to that view. It’s actually embarrassing that a federal agency would be so incompetent in pursuit of their essential purpose. Unfortunately the political angle on this clouded their way forward – joining with the AFL, whilst trying to serve their political masters. Somewhere along the line due process and basic justice was lost.

It’s now at the stage where what so many of us Essendon ‘truthers’ claimed now seems to be true. That will never be accepted by many, but the moderate, reasonable majority have been exposed to the flaws and manipulation within the investigation. Both the AFL and ASADA come out of this looking very bad; and there is now some level of understanding of our position.

Starting this morning was the case between the EFC and ASADA to rule whether the joint investigation with the AFL was legal or not. If it is ruled illegal then everything is off the table, and the investigation basically invalidated. If it is allowed then the show cause notices remain in place. My suspicion is that the judge will rule against ASADA, but allow them to pick up the pieces. I think that will be moot regardless. It seems that ASADA have no evidence of note and have been attempting to bully the players into making admissions. That hasn’t happened, and in the absence of real evidence, and in consideration of time spent and additional expense required, it’s my guess this whole thing will peter out.

That’s not yet the case, however, which brings me to this morning, sitting here behind the reception desk of a massage shop surfing the net. I went from site to site, hitting refresh every so often to get commentary on the court proceedings.

On one page I watched the live feed from the courtroom. QC’s in their formal regalia stood and presented their opening arguments. On the Essendon side there were three, one each for the club, the players, and the coach, James Hird. For ASADA there was just one.

I watched and listened as they made their statements, fascinated and bemused all at the same time. To make some sense of it I would check and refresh my twitter feed every few minutes. And for uneducated barracking I would visit the fan forum I am part of and occasional contributor to. As it could be expected that was rife with comment and speculation, both positive and doom and gloom. Truly, such sites are a fascinating insight into human nature.

You could call my morning unproductive, except even without this diversion there would have been nothing to do. More accurately my morning was precisely distracting. I was happy there was nothing else to do.

So where is it at? In the vernacular of the sport, I’d say we went into the quarter time break with a 2 goal lead. As always though, there’s a lot of game to go, and a lot can happen.

Seen not to be done

Last night after the game against Carlton the very much under siege Essendon coach, James Hird, gave one of the most remarkable press conferences you’d ever hope to see. For 6 months the media have been camped on his front lawn, almost literally, door-stopping him each morning as he heads off to work. He has never been less than courteous.

Last night, at the pitch of this scandal, he finds himself the centre of he sat answering the fevered questions of a critical press. His responses were measured and honest, he rose above the pack to perform with the dignity and class of a gentleman. When the presser might have ended he let it go on, let them ask their questions he said. It was absolutely mesmerising TV, whether an Essendon fan or not.

Take that with a grain of salt perhaps, since I’m very much a Hird acolyte – there are few people on this planet I respect more. All the same, I found my admiration for him increase as the presser went on, and it’s hard to believe than any impartial observer – and perhaps even the odd critic – would not have been similarly impressed.

This is a man who has been under the most incredible personal pressure, yet he continues to function, and to present when it would be so much easier to retreat. Most would have buckled before now. As a player James Hird was known for his skill and wizardry, but he was also a player of great personal courage. That’s very much on display through these long months. He’s an inspiration for those who love him, but we love him because he inspires us. (Man, don’t I sound like the fanboy?).

I was buzzing with it afterwards. It had been a big night. Lots of emotions had been brought to the surface. Roused as I was by Hird’s performance, I was saddened to believe that a man so clearly better could be brought low by a pack unworthy to mentioned in the same breath as him. Doesn’t that happen too much?

Once more Hird proclaimed his innocence, but intermingled with that was willingness to do whatever was best for the club. That likely means that he will be suspended from the game he loves, and which till recently loved him back. Innocent perhaps, but banished.

I can’t begin to explain how disenchanted I am with the whole sorry saga. Most Essendon fans will say the same. There’s been a lot of talk in recent times about ‘natural justice’ in the legal sense. We all want that. Beyond that is the more fundamental kind of justice, the difference between what is right and what is wrong. Hell, we know that injustice occurs every day, that right does not always prevail. That’s disappointing, but we are conditioned to a degree to accept that. What’s difficult in this case is that injustice is a part of the predetermined process. It’s cynical and two-faced, and it looks like prevailing.

I thought then to list, for posterity’s sake, the litany of undemocratic, unjust, and occasionally corrupt processes that have exemplified this investigation.

  • In February Essendon FC is induced to ‘self-report’ a suspicion that illegal supplements might have been administered to the players. This is later proven to be false, but the damage is done, the genie is out of the bottle. There is reason to believe that the AFL acted illegally in revealing details of the ACC investigation.
  • ASADA and the AFL then conduct a joint investigation into Essendon, which is illegal under the terms which ASADA operates.
  • All parties to the investigation are subject to confidentiality agreements. These are honoured by Essendon, but regular leaks from the ongoing investigation over a period of 5 months make their way to the press. This is illegal, and offenders risk a 2 year jail sentence.
  • Selected members of the press, hand fed by senior AFL executives, are encouraged to pursue vendettas against EFC, and senior figures – such as Hird. Much of this is libellous, some of it scandalous, and most of it would normally result in post-season court action in a fair-minded society. That’s unlikely to occur now if deals are to be done. The rabid pack of dogs get off scot-free.
  • Throughout this persecution neither the club, nor individuals concerned, are able to defend themselves because of the constraints of the confidentiality agreement. The story gets sold as fact without it.
  • The key drug in question, AOD-9604, is found in February to have been not prohibited for use in the period investigated. The AFL know this, but choose to remain silent. The result of this craven silence is that the club continues to be portrayed as guilty when it is not, and the captain of the club, reigning Brownlow Medallist, and much acclaimed good guy, Jobe Watson, is booed whenever he touches the ball – which, given his quality, is plenty.
  • ASADA finally release an ‘interim’ report. In the first instance this has been clearly produced in time for the AFL to act before the finals. In other words ASADA is in cahoots with the AFL to punish individuals conveniently within the AFL’s time frame. An interim report also means that the confidentiality agreements remain in effect – ergo, Essendon are still unable to defend themselves publicly.
  • Despite the length of the investigation ASADA have been unable to prove that illegal or banned substances were taken, and no infraction notices are issued.
  • The central protagonist, the mad scientist with all the answers, Steve Dank, is never interviewed by ASADA. The report is published without his crucial testimony.
  • Despite no infractions being recorded Essendon is still deemed to be guilty.
  • The report is incomplete inasmuch as it contains allegations, but not the defence of the allegations. Defendants were not given the opportunity to rebut the allegations made against them.
  • The report is leaked, once more, to the AFL’s favourite journalists. Once more the club is painted as being rotten without an opportunity to defend itself. These leaks contravene the terms of ASADA, and leaking of personal details without permission constitute an illegal act.
  • Unlike a court of law the club and the individuals are presumed to be guilty until proven innocent – an opportunity which is denied to them. Much of the reporting on this would constitute a contempt of court if it was to be heard by a legal body. The AFL uses the media as an organ to influence public opinion and intimidate the club.
  • Despite the interim nature of the ASADA report the AFL choose to charge EFC on the basis of that, in large part on governance issues, outside of the terms of reference in which ASADA acts.
  • AFL release a highly inflammatory ‘charge sheet’, which is then taken to be factual by the court of public opinion after being splashed across front pages. Once more the EFC have no right of rebuttal.
  • A highly emotionally woman claiming to be a players mother rings talk back critical of the club, a disastrous moment for the club. The woman cannot be identified, and the word around the traps is that she was an actress making a paid performance to increase pressure upon the club.
  • The AFL refuse a request from the club to have the hearing heard by an independent tribunal. The AFL, joint investigators, will also act as judge and jury – analogous to a person being charged by the police and appearing in court to be judged by the arresting officers.
  • Deals are negotiated prior to any hearing. I.e you are guilty, this is your penalty, now we’ll go to the hearing.
  • EFC are isolated within the competition, by the media, and by public opinion.

That’s where it stands now (and doubtless I’ve left out things). The bottom line is that Essendon have been effectively pronounced guilty by all and sundry without the forum or the opportunity to defend themselves. It’s like a Soviet show trial, but without the trial, and Pravda reporting on it.

There are fair-minded, sane commentators out there, but most have been marginalised. Mainstream press have jumped on the bandwagon not wanting to be left out. The AFL is such a huge industry that it corrupts in a similar way to government does. Directly or indirectly the AFL employs many thousands of people, and they buy a lot of compliance as a result. They control the message; they hold the purse strings; and the clubs are made to toe the line.

I suspect a deal will be done in the next 24 hours. My feelings on this are pretty clear. I have a heavy heart, and cant envisage any deal being done acceptable in these circumstances. We’ve been cut from the herd though, and its hard to survive alone.

Is that democratic? No. Is is just? Not on your life. Too few see it: amazingly few. I made a joke on twitter the other week about Wikileaks exposing the corruption, but maybe that’s what’s needed. Regardless of guilt or innocence, this is a crime against due process, fairness, and ultimately, justice. It makes me sick.