The Essendon Football Club (the Bombers) of the Australian Football League (AFL) is one of the most successful clubs in Australia. Since 1871, the team has won 16 premierships (see: championships); they are tied with Carlton for the most all-time. However, the team had not won a premiership since 2000. In an effort to end the drought, the team hired James Hird, a former Essendon captain and 1996 Brownlow Medal co-winner for “best and fairest” player in the AFL, as head coach in 2010.
Last February, in a report by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) named “Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport,” Essendon was accused to have given supplements to players containing a drug named AOD-9604. The drug, which contains human growth hormone (HGH), was originally designed as an anti-obesity drug but was found to be ineffective in trials. While the ACC originally stated it was not banned, the World Anti-Doping Agency has AOD-9604 under its S0 category, prohibiting it for any use on humans.
The Bombers asked the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) to investigate the matter, but an independent report commissioned by the team revealed the presence of a “pharmacologically experimental environment never adequately controlled or challenged or documented,” as well as “failures in structure and accountability” and “sidelining of the medical staff.”
While team CEO Ian Robson and president David Evans both resigned in May and July, respectively, Hird and team doctor Bruce Reid both maintained their innocence.
On June 24, Essendon captain and 2012 Brownlow Medal winner Jobe Watson revealed on national television that he believes he was given AOD-9604 and also signed a consent form thinking it was legal. “My understanding after it being given through [club doctor] Bruce Reid and the club is that I was receiving AOD, yes [ . . . ] The experience of having that many injections was not something I had experienced in AFL football before,” he stated.
On July 31, Essendon’s former high performance director Dean Robinson claimed in a televised interview that Hird oversaw the supplements program, but the team dismissed the allegations as revenge from an ex-employee. Three days later, the ASADA released an interim report on the team.
Last month, the AFL charged Hird, Reid, assistant coach Mark Thompson, and sports administrator Danny Corcoran with “bringing the game of football into disrepute.” The league talked to the four parties to negotiate a settlement after Hird stated his intention to take the league to court. On Aug. 27, days before the final match of the season, the harshest penalties in AFL history were handed out.
Essendon was disqualified from the 2013 AFL Finals (playoffs), fined $2 million, and stripped of draft picks in both the 2013 and 2014 player drafts. Hird was suspended from the AFL for one year, Corcoran four months, and Thompson was fined $30,000. Reid, however, has stated that he was “marginalized” and has taken his case to the Victoria Supreme Court.
Many Essendon supporters did not like the ban, claiming that due process by the league was denied – especially when the ASADA’s investigation is ongoing and that players, cleared of any wrongdoing, were penalized for the team’s mistakes. Others, including rival teams, have said that the penalties do not go far enough as a doping deterrent. Hird later admitted that he “should have done more” and the AFL admitted that prior intervention could have ended Essendon’s program.
While the investigation has been mostly resolved, the damage has been done. The reputation of what was once a storied club has now been tarnished. A blow has been delivered, not only to the most popular league in Australia, but also to the country’s sports-centric culture. The Bombers’ team song is titled “See The Bombers Fly Up” – hopefully there will be no more turbulence.