Business titans are toe-to-toe in AFL's drug scandal

New Essendon chairman Paul Little, Andrew Demetriou and ASADA chief Aurora Andruska are squaring off for a clash. The truth is that they should all be worried.

Australia is about to see a rare public battle between three titans – Paul Little, former chief of transport giant Toll; Australia’s greatest sporting executive, AFL boss Andrew Demetriou; and the chief executive of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, Aurora Andruska.

What has brought on the clash is the Essendon substance affair. In the coming battle each titan has clear weaknesses and the others will attempt to exploit those weaknesses. All three titans will be fronted by a battery of top lawyers – some say it will be akin to lawyers duelling at 12 paces.

Whether all three titans decide to have a fight to the death or whether they compromise will determine the fate of the AFL, the Essendon Football Club and ASADA.

And I must here declare an interest (see below).

The Essendon chairman-elect Paul Little had to be tough to take Toll from an obscure transport company to the biggest in Australia. As I have written before, Essendon cannot be proud of being caught up in this mess. But Little knows that if Essendon loses coach James Hird, assistant coach Mark ‘Bomber’ Thompson and/or 2013 Premiership points (let alone Jobe Watson’s 2012 Brownlow medal or player bans) his beloved club will be set back a decade. It may not survive. Little will not take prisoners even if it means court battles that delay the AFL finals.

Essendon’s management mistakes were clearly the biggest factor in the mess but ASADA now also has a lot of answering to do. Back in February this year Essendon asked ASADA to make an inquiry. As it turned out, ASADA was the wrong group to choose because it had contributed to the problem and it is very difficult for ASADA to inquire into itself. ASADA chief Aurora Andruska has a wonderful record in the public service, particularly in education. When at the Department of Education she developed and implemented changed funding arrangements for non-government schools, creating a people-oriented culture within the organisation.

But Little (and perhaps Demetriou) have ASADA potentially on the wrong foot and, like many Essendon officials, Andruska may need to consider her position.

ASADA will next week bring out a long delayed report which will set out a sorry Essendon history. In particular it will document what happened with the peptide AOD-9604 – the substance that Essendon captain Jobe Watson has admitted to taking. But because the status of AOD-9604 is in so much doubt, Little will be on strong grounds if AOD-9604 becomes the main issue. Apart from the Essendon general conduct issues, to have a major impact ASADA must go beyond AOD-9604, and show that substances that were clearly banned in 2012 were used.

As I have pointed out, when last February Sports Minister Jason Clare was berating AFL boss Andrew Demetriou and other sports administrators in Canberra, the Australian Crime Commission boldly declared in writing that AOD-9604 was not prohibited under schedule S2 of the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibited list.

Then in his reply to my questions Crime Commission boss John Lawler revealed that the Crime Commission made that declaration after seeking “expert advice” from ASADA (The sports drug debacle falls on ASADA's shoulders, July 17 and ASADA has dropped the ball on drugs, July 18).

I concluded that If AOD-9604 was not prohibited in February 2013 then it clearly was not prohibited in 2012.

Now ASADA claims that AOD-9604 was banned under another section – the all-embracing S0. But that’s a very hard case for ASADA to justify. It’s like asking a person whether it’s raining and then being correctly told “no” but not being informed that it’s hailing. Some 70 days after the ASADA “all clear” was given, AOD-9604 was banned by WADA. Just what role will the world body play given the battle of the titans is in the “too hard” basket?

Accordingly, to the extent that in next week’s report ASADA talks about AOD-9604 it will be mired in controversy.

The third titan, Andrew Demetriou, is the son of Greek Cypriot migrants and grew up in a Coburg fish and chip shop. These days, apart from his AFL duties, he is a major stakeholder in an international dental products business. In other words, like Little he has been a very successful business person. It is no wonder the AFL has done so well. Demetriou and former Essendon chairman David Evans were great friends. Under ASADA rules it is a criminal offence to leak ASADA information. Demetriou is being accused in some newspapers of tipping off Evans that there was an ASADA inquiry coming, which enabled Essendon to get in first and call for an inquiry.

The first accusation was about a telephone call in the presence of other Essendon officials. On that occasion Demetriou and Evans were on the same side but Essendon coach James Hird had another version. Demetriou was very clear in his denial. But were there other calls? And Hird is suggesting (no doubt with Little’s backing) there were leaks aimed at the Essendon coach. I have no idea of the facts but given the penalties this is a very high stakes game.

The truth is that in this affair everyone mucked up – ASADA, Essendon and the AFL – and much better rules are required.

My guess is that the titans, Demetriou, Little and Andruska, are too smart not to compromise – but no one can be sure.

Footnote: I am an Essendon supporter and a social member of the Essendonians. My views are my own and not those of the Essendon Football Club or any other Essendonian. 

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