Dr Simon Longstaff AO

About Dr Simon Longstaff AO

Dr Simon Longstaff is the Executive Director of the Ethics Centre, an independent, not-for-profit organisation focused on the promotion and exploration of ethical questions.

The Hird interview: Why we should focus on the flock

Approx Reading Time-12While Dr Simon Longstaff finds James Hird’s lack of culpability regarding the Essendon saga staggering, he does believe Hird’s remorse to be sincere.

 

Until its fall, the British had believed Fortress Singapore to be impregnable. Afterwards, Sir Winston Churchill was required to account for the scandal – not just of the loss of the Pearl of the East but for the lack of planning and preparation that had made it possible.

For his part, Churchill responded in the following words, “I did not know. I was not told. I should have asked.”

It is this last sentence that strikes me as making all the difference – and its absence seems to hang ominously over the scandal surrounding the Essendon Football Club and the AFL.

Sunday night saw The Ethics Centre host an interview between the ABC’s Tracey Holmes and former Essendon Bombers player and coach, James Hird. In the course of the interview, Hird took responsibility for his role in the saga surrounding the Bombers and expressed guilt – most notably for not having protected the interests of the players whose welfare was Hird’s primary concern.

The interview may not have been as relentlessly forensic as some might have expected.

However, it still led some important revelations about what seems to have resulted in such profoundly damaging consequences for the AFL, the venerable Essendon Football Club and its officials, the players and Hird himself.

In particular, I remain perplexed by the fact that, to this day, nobody at the club or within the AFL seems to know exactly what was being injected into the players. Indeed, James Hird suggested that the only person who might know for sure is Stephen Dank. However, sports journalist and author of The Straight Dope, Chip Le Grand, suggests that so ramshackle was the supplements program that even Dank may not really know what he was providing to the club and its players.

And here’s where the lesson from Churchill comes in. Surely it must have occurred to someone, somewhere in Essendon, to ask for detailed information to be provided. Surely someone must have asked for evidence of a chain of custody, from manufacturer to Dank, to assure everybody of the provenance of the supplements.

Surely someone should have asked. And if the answer was not forthcoming, then surely those in authority should have put a hold to the supplements program until there could be absolute certainty that what was being injected was perfectly safe and compliant. Or perhaps the ambiguity was deliberate – a matter of “plausible deniability” – and something that responded to the human inclination not to know unpleasant truths.

In all of this it does not help that authority over the supplements program had been formally removed from Hird and put under the control of Dean Robinson, Essendon’s former high-performance coach. I must admit, until learning this, I had assumed Hird was the boss cocky. It now turns out that Robinson had an independent line of authority and that Hird was unable to exercise direct control.

That said, I still believe that Hird had immense influence – and that he could have curbed Robinson and Dank’s practices by, for instance, going directly the the players with his concerns. I think Hird agrees – and said as much during Sunday night’s interview.

Of course, we also need to recognise that Hird was not operating in a vacuum. He was also subject to direction by his employer, Essendon, and by the influence of the AFL. I do not think it lessens his acknowledgement of personal responsibility to ask that others also be held accountable for the roles they played – especially in determining the nature of Essendon’s formal response to allegations of wrong-doing and in shaping how evidence was to be presented to those making enquiries.

So, how does one explain not just Hird’s response but also that of other powerful actors in this unhappy story? My best guess (based on a fair amount of experience) is that all of the principal actors acted in the sincere belief that they were doing what was best for the institution they were committed to protecting.

Those working for the AFL would have been looking to protect the interests of the game as a whole. Essendon would have been looking to protect the club…and so forth. In such a landscape, the easy option does not exist. Most commonly all you have to choose is the “least bad” option.

I suspect that something of this kind has happened here. That the banned Essendon players, and James Hird, too, are some of the collateral damage flowing from world sport’s absolutely essential and proper plan to kill off the use of performance enhancing drugs – and the AFL’s desire to prevent the contagion of the supplements program spreading beyond Essendon to infect the code as a whole.

But there is something more to the findings of the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) that cannot be ducked. At the heart of the CAS findings is a ruling that players are personally responsible for what is done to and with their bodies. This is a responsibility that cannot be “outsourced” to any other person – no matter what they might claim and no matter how sincere a friend they might be. So, like Churchill, the players should have asked – and in the absence of perfect certainty, should have refused to participate in the supplements program.

It is easy for me to opine about this now – with the benefit of perfect hindsight, and free from the intense pressure to perform that is brought to bear on elite athletes by the code, their club, their fans and their peers. However, as I have argued elsewhere, it is ultimately the players who are the “stewards” of the game.

All of that said, James Hird was not a corporal on the field. He was a general. He knows this to be true – thus, his expression of personal responsibility and guilt. Hird knows that he could have insisted on knowing more and doing more. He knows he could have used his influence – if not formal power – to prevent what has occurred. Having seen the man up close, I do believe his remorse to be sincere.

 

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