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.