Sharks, Bombers doping punishment shows clubs should cut deals to avoid turmoil: opinion

OPINION: The lesson for sporting clubs after Essendon's guilty verdict is that clubs investigated for anything drug-related should cut deals, no matter how it might affect their integrity, writes sports blogger Martin Gabor.

Sharks, Bombers doping punishment shows clubs should cut deals to avoid turmoil: opinion

Sharks, Bombers doping punishment shows clubs should cut deals to avoid turmoil: opinion

No club has had to endure as much scrutiny as the Essendon Bombers, and today's bombshell guilty verdict outcome was a bitter pill to swallow.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) handed down its verdict into the alleged supplement regime at Essendon, with 34 past and present players found guilty of using the banned substance Thymosin Beta-4 during the 2012 season.


The AFL heavyweights were the first Australian team in any sporting code to be embroiled in the scandal and the club adamantly plead its innocence, or at least ignorance, to their own detriment.

In the three-year ordeal, the Bombers have been banned from playing in the 2013 AFL finals series, they've had trade embargoes put in place, and their coach - James Hird - was exiled from the game for 12 months. Now they're planning a 2016 campaign with 12 of their top players suddenly unavailable.

AFL CEO Gill McLachlan says: 'We’re committed to clean sport'

But Essendon’s plight wasn't the only example of an Australian sporting team to bear the brunt of ASADA.

The shadows of controversial sport scientist Stephen Dank loomed long and large over the NRL, with Cronulla Sharks firmly in the crosshairs of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency.

An investigation into their 2011 campaign revealed players had allegedly taken prohibited substances.

Just like the Bombers, the Sharks lost their coach Shane Flanagan for the season.

Unlike Hird, Flanagan is still at the club.

And while they too plead their innocence at endless hearings, the Cronulla players did what their AFL counterparts refused to do; they compromised.

The shadows of controversial sport scientist Stephen Dank loomed long and large over the NRL, with Cronulla Sharks (pictured) firmly in the crosshairs of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency. Photo: Getty

After two years of legal proceedings, Cronulla players accepted ASADA's findings, resulting in three-week suspensions.

They could have fought ASADA, whose case was reportedly weak.

However, unlike Essendon, they decided to cut their losses and cop the smallest punishment possible.

Furthermore, unlike the Essendon case, WADA was satisfied with the Cronulla punishment, adding extra incentive for them to accept the deal.

In the three-year ordeal, the Bombers have been banned from playing in the 2013 AFL finals series, they've had trade embargoes put in place, and their coach - James Hird - was exiled from the game for 12 months. Now they're planning a 2016 campaign with 12 of their top players suddenly unavailable. Pictured: Essendon Bombers CEO Xavier Campbell (L) and Chairman Lindsay Tanner. Photo: Getty

Given what has transpired at Windy Hill, Sharks' players must be quietly celebrating.

Not only did they get lighter sentences, but the accused also saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Since the bans, the Sharks have excelled on and off the field, making the second round of last year's finals campaign, luring quality players and landing much-needed sponsors.

However, while they've come out of the supplements saga in a much stronger position than the Bombers, both clubs have one thing in common: the 34 Bombers and 17 Sharks' players will forever be associated as "drug cheats".

Both sets of men may believe they are innocent, but in both cases, have been found guilty.

In fact, the situation for Cronulla players is worse, as they plead guilty to the charges.

The stigma has seen their careers tainted by an imaginary asterisk that denotes all achievements have come as a result of peptides.

Early sentiment for the Bombers has been mixed, but there has been an underlying sense of sympathy for the players, who many believe were duped by the coaching staff.

Given their previous punishments, some believe that Essendon players and those at other clubs don't deserve such a lengthy ban.

Shane Flanagan is still part of the Cronulla Sharks club. Photo: Getty

Granted, the Bombers could have struck a deal in 2014 that would have seen players handed short term bans, but whether it was their own stubbornness, or they truly felt they were innocent, the club continued to fight.

It is clear that the club has been made an example of by the powers that be, but how is it fair when compared to the deal struck by the Sharks?

Most sporting bodies have universal two-year bans for drug cheats. How then did Cronulla barter such a good deal?

NRL pundits certainly found the rulings puzzling. The players had been found guilty of cheating, yet escaped with a slap on the wrists. Other players received longer bans for high tackles.



The Melbourne Storm lost two premierships, were stripped of all points accrued in the 2010 season, and its players have been branded "cheats" as a result of salary cap indiscretions.

That three-week ban looks even better for Cronulla players.

Did the CAS punish the Bombers so severely for refusing to accept the initial findings?

Surely the fight for justice couldn't be the reason.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan confirmed the League had discussions about the Brownlow after the verdict was handed down, which has rocked the entire code in what's been described as a 'very dark period' for the League. Photo: Getty

Players who take the early guilty plea at the AFL Tribunal receive lessened sentences than those who choose to fight their case.

The "I'm wrong, you're right" defence might work in some circles; it seems gross to think it could have saved Essendon players here.

Sadly, it seems the lesson learnt is that clubs who are investigated for anything drug related should cut deals, no matter how it might affect their integrity.

Jobe Watson shows off the Brownlow Medal he won in 2012. Picture: Getty Images

Instead, shouldn't the lesson be to follow the rules? Don't be tempted to win at all costs, and above all, look after the players?

Both parties probably thought they were protecting their players.

Looking at their respective punishments, the Sharks apparently did a better job.

Martin Gabor is an Australian journalist and sport fanatic, he blogs at The Gift of the Gabz.

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