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A shambles of the AFL's making

Tom Heenan

Tom Heenan

Written on Thursday, 12 December 2013 14:59

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It's been another big Bombergate week. On Monday, the saga headed to the Victorian Supreme Court. Essendon's former fitness guru, Dean 'the Weapon' Robinson, is seeking $2 million in compensation for damages to his reputation, allegedly caused by his abrupt sacking last February.

In a directions hearing, Associate Justice Robyn Lansdowne ordered the parties into mediation. Another directions hearing has been pencilled in for June. If the case proceeds to trial, Robinson's legal team is likely to subpoena Essendon and AFL officials. This should demystify much of the spin that currently shrouds Bombergate.

So far the published facts have done little to inspire public confidence in the administration of football and sport in this country.

Tania Hird's recent declaration to the Herald-Sun that her husband is being paid during his suspension is staggering. her allegation that the AFL's CEO, Andrew Demetriou, knew about the arrangement - but denied it - beggars belief.

According to Tania Hird, without the continued payment of her husband's salary the matter would have ended up in the Supreme Court. As the AFL and Essendon were determined to keep the matter out of the courts, they seemingly bowed to James Hird's demands.

But Demetriou has a different take. Last week he assured us that neither the AFL nor Essendon were paying Hird during his suspension. With Tania Hird's recent revelation, however, Demetriou has had a rethink and is now seeking "confirmation" from Essendon that Hird is not on the club's payroll. Until Essendon responds, the club will not receive its monthly discretionary payments from the AFL and may be summoned to an 'explain all' before the AFL Commission next week.

What a shambles this has been!

Tania Hird is no fool. As a lawyer who specialises in commercial property, she must know the AFL is on shaky ground and its so-called investigation is shot full of holes.

How else can you explain the AFL Commission's failure to stipulate in writing that Hird was not to be paid during his 12-month suspension? Without this stipulation his punishment is little more than a paid sabbatical at a French finishing school.

Tania Hird's admission reveals not only the AFL's ineptitude, but Essendon's utter disregard for the investigative process. Few organisations would allow an employee who has been found guilty of an offence to sit out their suspension on full pay. Essendon is duty-bound to its supporters, the AFL, and the football public to explain the situation and terminate Hird's pay immediately.

The club has already signposted its disregard for the AFL's investigation with the appointment of Mark Thompson as senior coach. Thompson was a guilty party and fined $30,000, yet he has been rewarded with the top job.

A more circumspect organisation would have appointed another unsullied senior coach, but not the Bombers.

Thompson's signing and the payment of Hird suggest Essendon has serious reservations about the integrity of the AFL investigation, and rightly so. The process was riddled with horse-trading and expediency.

The appointment of the Australian Sports Commission's (ASC) chair, John Wylie, to act as a mediator between the parties added to the farce. The ASC and ASADA are closely aligned. With ASADA still investigating Essendon's supplement program, Wylie was in no position to broker a deal between Essendon and the AFL.

During the negotiations he allegedly put a number of "offers" to Hird and his co-accused, clearly compromising the ASADA investigation.

The cruel irony of Bombergate is that the AFL had a case against Essendon, but prosecuted it with such ineptitude that attention has shifted from the allegations of doping to the validity of the process.

Demetriou has defended the integrity and transparency of the process, though Tania Hird's revelation on the status of her husband's current salary would suggest otherwise.

If Mrs Hird is right, Demetriou should acknowledge this stuff-up occurred on his watch and tender his resignation. So too should Wylie whose involvement has compromised his position as ASC chair.

The horse-trading and expediency that has riddled this whole saga is mind-boggling and raises questions about the professionalism of those involved.

Dean Robinson may be doing us all a favour. By taking the matter to court, perhaps the facts will emerge on what really happened at Essendon. At present all we have is the fog of spin and questions about a shambles of the AFL's making.

(Dr Tom Heenan teaches sport and Australian studies at Monash University)

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