AFL House Must Be Strong In Time Of Crisis

For many years those high within AFL House have boasted proudly about the integrity and unequivocal success of Australia’s native game.

They’ve sat back in their leather chairs at AFL House and heralded a record breaking $1.253 billion TV deal, an annual attendance of 7.375 million people and the expansion of the game into the rugby league heartland of Western Sydney and Gold Coast.

To put it simply, the state of the game has been in a superlative condition for the past decade. We as football supporters have had very little to complain about. Prior to this year, we’ve really only grumbled about the constant tinkering with the rules, the inconsistencies of the match review panel and lopsided fixtures. In short, the issues we’ve been concerned about are miniscule when we compare the issues that face other sports.

Furthermore, AFL House has governed a league that has produced commercial results that Australia’s other sporting competitions could only envisage in their most wild dreams. Thus AFL House deserves much credit for continuing to ensure that Aussie Rules remains the most closely followed and supported game in the country. Unlike the NRL, we’ve experienced few problems with alleged match fixing, poor crowds and major salary cap rorts.

However 2013 has been a spectacularly disastrous period for the AFL. Scandal after scandal, it has thus far been a year that will be painfully unforgettable by those involved at AFL House. The AFL has been confronted with problems that have required bold responses to ensure the game’s integrity remains strong. Unfortunately, AFL House has failed to deliver the resilient leadership demanded by these critical issues.

AFL House’s leadership was first brought into question in February when it delivered a rather mystifying penalty to the Melbourne Football Club over alleged ‘tanking’; a term used to describe teams deliberately losing matches to gain higher draft picks. Tanking has been an issue that for too long AFL House has refused to acknowledge. However, after months of public scrutiny, the evidence became too much for the League to continue to have their heads buried in the sand of the Greek Islands – a setting where AFL Chief Andrew Demetriou is currently seeking refuge in. Why Demetriou takes his holiday leave during the AFL season is beyond me but this timing can be a debate for another day.

One did not have to be a football aficionado to see that the Melbourne FC was unmistakably not playing to win games of football in 2009. It was not until a couple of years later when former Melbourne players started admitting to tanking that AFL House decided to finally open an investigation. However despite issuing a $500,000 fine to the club and handing down suspensions to Melbourne’s football manager and former coach, the AFL bizarrely did not find the club guilty of tanking.

If Melbourne did not deliberately lose matches (like the AFL wants us to believe), then why was the club punished? The AFL found that despite Melbourne playing to their upmost potential in the 2009 season (laughable to all spectators), they engaged in ‘conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game’.

So in following the AFL’s logic that Melbourne did not tank, questions arise how did the club act against the reputation of the game?

There are several other clubs who have been accused of tanking, most notably Carlton in 2007. However, the AFL did not take the issue seriously enough and instead rather preyed on a weaker target in Melbourne. The AFL used Melbourne as a scapegoat and a warning to other clubs tempted by tanking – a problem that the AFL has created through its own rules rewarding teams who consistently lose. This is why the penalty was so manifestly absurd to all involved.

However, the game’s integrity was put under greater threat earlier this year by a different and far more confronting issue – performance-enhancing drugs.

Football supporters’ faith in the integrity of the game has been greatly shaken by the Essendon drug scandal. How could Essendon carry out such extensive drug practices for an entire season without the AFL being made aware? And more importantly, why has the AFL taken so long to act? The revelation of the Australian Crime Commission Report was the day football supporters lost their innocence. Until then, supporters largely had unwavering faith in the integrity of the game, believing that performance-enhancing drugs belonged in Le Tour de France, not the AFL.

It has since emerged that Essendon players were administered the anti-obesity drug AOD-9604 – a substance not yet approved for human use and banned under the WADA code. More recently, fresh allegations have arisen that some Essendon players were administered the peptide, Thymosin beta 4 – a higher banned drug than AOD-9604 under the WADA code.

Last week 2012 Brownlow medallist, Jobe Watson, made the startling revelation that he had been administered AOD-9604. The AFL now has little choice but to strip Watson of the Brownlow medal – the most prestigious individual award issued to the best and fairest player in the game. Surely the award cannot be given to a player who had been injected performance-enhancing drugs? However, the AFL has so far refused to comment on the issue.

Legendary coach, Mick Malthouse, describes the AFL House’s silence as “disturbing”.

“This is a time when people from the AFL have to stand up and show real leadership, not let the back pages hang out there and murder a player from Essendon or Essendon themselves. Let’s get some clarity on issues,” Malthouse pleaded.

In fairness to AFL House, through conducting a joint investigation with ASADA, it does not have complete control over the length of time it is taking for a conclusion to be reached. All supporters are justifiably concerned about the possibility of Essendon competing in the finals series in September. What if Essendon wins the premiership (a distinct possibility with the club sitting 3rd on the ladder) after taking these drugs?

The ‘what ifs’ are unquantifiable and equate to the AFL House’s worst nightmares.

Thankfully AFL House has slightly appeased these concerns by promising in recent days the investigation will come “to an end with ASADA in August and prior to the finals series.”

The entire sporting public, not just the football world, will be watching the AFL’s final response in August to the Essendon drug saga with great interest. The AFL must resist the temptation to strike secret deals with ASADA (as some have reported) to protect the reputation of the game and more specifically, the Essendon Football Club.  In handing down any penalty, the AFL must do so with the game’s integrity at the forefront of its mind. It must have zero concerns about commercial or Essendon FC interests.

The purity of our game is too important for AFL House to this time neglect.