As the Essendon doping saga drags on towards its inexorable conclusion, with many parties under pressure for all sort of reasons, the most pressure is not on any single person, but the sport itself.
The AFL is defined by a series of gentlemen's agreements, starting with but not limited to the Laws of the Game - which are capitalised in general usage in footy circles like an Act of Parliament, but not encoded in actual statute. This model of the league writing its own rules, which are knowingly orthogonal in many respects to the law of the land, continues from the basics of the game all the way up to the high level concepts of socialist equalisation on which the league is precariously balanced. It is not necessarily a crime to trip a man in the street, but it is a punishable offence under the rules of Australian football. The courts look with jaundiced eye upon restraint of trade in most situations, yet the AFL imposes its will on young men to send them across the country to play for much less money than they could command in a truly free market.
When sporting regulations are tested in the courts they can be found wanting, as in the Terry Hill case in 1991 which proved that the NRL draft was a restraint of trade and left that league looking like a laughing stock. Similarly, Essendon and Stephen Dank have strong defensive arguments on many fronts in the current drugs scandal, as I am sure their highly-paid lawyers are telling them. For one, the new powers ASADA has to compel Dank to testify at pains of a $5,100 daily fine can be seen as an abuse of several human rights, such as the right not to be compelled to incriminate oneself. Essendon and Hird have a point when they highlight the conflict of interest the AFL Commission has in determining sanctions against EFC officials for bringing the game into disrepute at the same time as they are leading the investigation with ASADA into the drug allegations.
The pressure is on Essendon to give in and Do The Right Thing by sacking Hird, agreeing to cop levels of sanctions even worse that the Carlton salary cap breaches a decade ago, and accepting that they will share Carlton's fate of turning into a mediocre also-ran. However, at the top of the Essendon hierarchy now is not the president Paul Little, but James Hird himself, since all those at Windy Hill who might have stood up to him in the past are now gone.
We used to call him Gentleman James. Is he still a gentleman, able to see the bigger picture of the sport and act on its behalf instead of his own interests? It must be so difficult for him, knowing how duplicitous the league has been in its dealings. The carpetstrollers at AFL House do not deserve the paternal post-siren handshake-and-bum-pat of a victor.
Stephen Dank is no gentleman. He is going to fight to the bitter end. He has nothing else to play for, no team around him or future to build. James Hird has a family, a club and his own conscience in his mind right now. He holds the integrity of the sport, the game he loves and that has given him so much to live for, in the palm of his hands. He is not bigger than the game. He is not even bigger than his club. The AFL officials are not bigger than the game either, just fallible humans like he is, but Hird is being asked to look beyond their petty concerns as well. To be the bigger man.
No one wins out of this process, it's a negative sum. Even if Essendon goes to court and wins, thus destroying ASADA and the drug testing process in Australia, the sport it is a part of would lose and the Bombers would become the pariah of the competition. At some point, someone inside Essendon has to say enough, this has gone on too long and it's not worth fighting any more. At this point, the only person capable of making that decision is James Hird.
UPDATE: Sinclair Davidson responds at Catallaxy Files, asking why this is so messy.
The answer is that the AFL can't give in like that, because the integrity of the sport is at stake. If it allows Essendon to flaunt the gentlemen's agreement not to use drugs, then it opens the competition up to all manner of other abuses of the trust that holds the game together. The league may have annoyed Hird and some fans with the tactics they have used, but the principle is more important than the minutiae of who leaked to whom. After all, no one wants Australian football to become as disgraceful as rugby league!I don’t actually disagree with much of what m0nty says. But I do wonder: how dumb are the AFL? If you’re in change of an organisation that is legally fragile, why would you mess with people who have standing to sue in court? Why would you mess with people who have money to sue in court?As Leigh Matthews suggested the other night – the AFL should have whacked the club with some or other nonsense charge and moved on – but when it decided to go after specific individuals it chose to have a fight.