6th February 2015

Ongoing doping case threatens to derail AFL pre-season

Players at Australian Football League (AFL) club Essendon are threatening to boycott pre-season competitions, unless the AFL Commission can guarantee that any suspensions as a result of an investigation into supplement use at the club will remain backdated if suspended players do take part. The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) began an investigation in 2013 into supplement use at the club during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, however the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal has yet to deliver its verdict. Essendon players are scheduled to take part in the pre-season NAB Challenge, however it is understood that ASADA considers any participation by the suspended players would waive their right to a backdated ban. As this affects 18-20 current Essendon players, it is unlikely that the club would be able to field a team, affecting broadcasting and sponsorship contracts. It is understood that the entire senior squad of 46 players has discussed boycotting the tournament as a statement of solidarity.

The AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal, investigating allegations that 32 past and present players used illegal supplements, is currently adjourned until 16 February. ASADA’s deadline for filing its closing submissions was yesterday, players must file their written closing submissions by 12 February and the AFL by 13 February. A decision as to whether AFL Anti-Doping rules have been breached is expected by 18 February, however sanction hearings will take place at a later date.

The 2015 AFL season doesn’t begin until 2 April, however the AFL has yet to confirm whether it will lift suspensions on the accused Essendon players for the 2015 National Australia Bank (NAB) Challenge, which takes place from 27 February (Essendon’s first game is on 7 March). ‘It is important to clarify that any suggestion we will not be playing is premature’, read a statement from Essendon Chairman Paul Little. ‘As it stands, our players who have been issued with infraction notices can have their provisional suspensions lifted at the discretion of the AFL Commission. However, it is unclear if this would impact the ability of a player to use this time against a potential sanction in the event of a guilty finding.’

Essendon’s 7 Match opponents, St. Kilda, have also sought assurances from the AFL that the game will go ahead. It is understood that Essendon’s opponents are also unhappy with the suggestion that the club could field lower grade players, due to health and safety concerns.

On 30 January, the Australian Federal Court dismissed a challenge against the lawfulness of the ASADA investigation, lodged by Essendon coach, James Hird. Hird had argued that the investigation, in which ASADA and the AFL cooperated closely, was not authorised by the ASADA Act, the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority Regulations and the NAD Scheme.

Hird alleged that ASADA had illegally used the AFL’s contractual powers to force Essendon players to attend interviews with ASADA, and that a contractual agreement with the AFL to answer questions had been used by ASADA to force the players to answer questions. The Federal Court held that this was within the cooperative powers envisaged within Australian anti-doping legislation. Hird has 28 days (until 27 February) to decide whether to appeal to Australia’s High Court.

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