On the day that Channel 7 was to be served papers by the West Coast Eagles over the Akermanis/Braun drug-cheating affair, Seven has taken "the nuclear option" by breaking one of the largest drug-scandals yet seen in AFL history. It seems the open war has been declared, with the battle already being fought out in court. With no sign of change in how the AFL executive's handles a culture steeped in widespread and persistent recreational drug use, get used to seeing stories like this.
Yesterday, Friday 24th of August, Channel 7 began hinting at an upcoming scandal and "seeding" the story on the afternoon news bulletins. From mid-afternoon, internet chat rooms and discussion forums where a-tingle with buzz, rumours and a sense of dread. While Seven had indicated it was a Melbourne-based club, among the fans, "God, I hope it's not my club" was a common refrain.
Seven News carried the story, which was picked up by all the media:
DEVELOPING STORY: A TELEVISION news report has accused two ******** footballers of taking the illegal drugs ecstasy, ice and cocaine during drug-fuelled nightclub sessions.
Channel 7 News tonight showed medical notes supposedly from a drug counselling session with the two ******** players.
A woman, Catherine, who spoke to the network on condition of anonymity, said she found the medical files with details of the drug use in a gutter outside an Ivanhoe clinic.
The medical records, which were shown with players names obscured, said the players had tested positive to ecstasy, ice and cocaine. They had taken the drugs with a group of other people.
Channel 9 reported Catherine had been paid by Channel 7 for the interview that obscured her identity. (PerthNow, 23/9/2007)
Other sources are reporting that up to seven players at the club are involved, though this is not confirmed in the press today.
THE AFL illicit drugs policy was in crisis last night as confidential medical records identifying two players who had tested positive to illegal drugs were sold to a commercial television station.
[ ... ]
The documents also contain claims that other players at the club regularly use drugs.
... The report did not identify the players but did disclose their club, as well as details about the frequency and nature of their drug use.
[ ... ]
The documents, which were paid for by Channel Seven, appear to be medical records of two players, referred to Ivanhoe's Victorian Addiction Centre by the clubs.
[ ... ]
Lawyers acting for the doctor treating the players — Professor Gregory Whelan — sought and obtained an injunction last night, preventing publication of the players' names or the club they represent. During its news program, Channel Seven said it had decided not to identify either player at the present time but was "continuing our investigations".
A woman interviewed as part of the Seven report claimed she found the papers in the gutter outside the Ivanhoe facility and could not return them because a gate to the centre was locked.
"I was just walking down the street when I saw some papers floating. I thought I'd pick them up and put them in the bin … I had a look and I recognised the names," said the woman, whose identity was obscured by the network. "I thought it was a shame I'd found them in the street."
Instead, she said, she sold the records to Channel Seven because she thought it would help the players involved. The Age understands the claim that the papers were found in the gutter is disputed. The centre's management said last night that it had no comment. (RealFooty, 25/8/2007)
Just after 6pm last night, Channel 7 got an injunction to prevent the club being named further in the media, with the AFL stating "Any media agency who intends to re-produce or re-publish any information to which the orders apply run the risk of being in contempt of court in doing so."
Today, this injunction was extended to the 30th of August. Once again, powerful wealthy parties are using the courts to prop up their money-making businesses at the expense of free speech. Once again, modern media technology renders the whole process pointless, since the club's name featured heavily in the titles and main text of numerous articles and discussion groups.
This scandal has intensified pressure on the AFL with it's lenient and much-maligned "three strikes" drugs policy. AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou went out on the front foot today, decry the leak, bringing in the police and threatening further legal action. Interestingly, he praised sections of the media that knew about the story but refused to publish:
Demetriou said he was at least pleased that several media outlets had apparently rejected the private documents, allegedly found on a suburban street.
"This story yesterday was actually offered to many media outlets who chose not to run it which I commend them on, chose not to purchase it, which I also commend them on. (Brisbane Times, 25/8/2007)
This shows the danger of going up against a media outlet: they know where bodies are buried. It also raises a pointed question: would this scandal have come out if Seven and the AFL weren't presently feuding? What other stories are widely known in media circles but held back from the public by "gentlemen's agreements" - or mutual self-interest?
While the AFL defends its drug-testing policies and record, it belies the now-popular view that something is seriously wrong. It's not just a few bad apples. It's not restricted to the West Coast Illegals, or even a particular state. It seems something is going wrong across the board, and the AFL must be powerless, uninterested or inept at getting on top of the problem. They seem more focused on stopping the bad news getting out than stopping the party drug usage.
How else can you explain:
- a mere 500 tests a year for 650+ players?
- a Hawthorn player refusing to provide a urine sample - and escaping sanction?
- a lengthy and costly court case last year, involving QCs and the Federal Police, to silence the media about details of player drug use?
- further court restrictions on free speech this year about similar matters?
- Port Adelaide players being correctly tipped off in advance about the supposedly "secret" drug testing regime instigated by ASADA?
- ASADA's investigation into this leak consisted of one guy informally asking around for a few days, in contrast to the full dog-and-pony show we're seeing now.
Sadly, the AFL seems very uneven in how it approaches drugs leaks: ones that suppress publicity are quietly swept aside, while ones that drive publicity are stepped on with their full resources.
It's been a big season for the League's drug dealers, with no signs of it slowing. The Ben Cousins drug scandal set the tone for the whole season. Daniel Kerr's taped conversation and Alan Didak's Hell Ride showed up the spill-over dangers of AFL players associating with those in the drugs trade.
By comparison, the Jason Akermanis/Michael Braun fiasco is tame and genteel. Is the West Coast Eagles management (through Michael Braun) really going to let Channel 7's lawyers loose on its internal documents as part of the "discovery phase" of a law suit? Now that they've dropped the H-bomb once, don't be surprised if the AFL backs away from pursuing Seven further over this one.
These scandals will be a constant feature of the game as long as we have a weak testing regime (a "shemozzle" in one player's words) coupled with a secretive, litigious and defensive executive and player union. Rather than just getting it all out in the open, the current setup encourages the media into the kind of cat-and-mouse games that drives the scandal drip-feed we're seeing now.
Maybe Demetriou needs to think about ripping the oozy Band Aid off in one vicious go, rather than having it slowly dragged off one painful hair at a time.
NB: References that identify the club in question have been removed, in accordance with the court injunction.
More breaking news in the story that ensures the AFL Season 2007 finishes the way it started, with a bitter taste in the mouth left by the public having to swallow something very unpleasant.
- The AFL was effectively calling "barley" by pointing out the allegation of a second positive from one player are wrong, since the amount recorded was allegedly "below the legal threshold for the allowable limit for drugs". This sees the AFL spin doctors sink to a new low in "school-yard lawyer" tactics. We look forwards to seeing other childish legal precepts like "you touched it last" and "no returns" employed in court later this week.
- Nathan Buckley, former AFL shop steward, stepped in and declared that AFL players may well abandon the entire (and apparently optional) illicit drug-testing process: "I can't see how the players would put their hands up to be exposed to something that we don't actually have to be a part of." Not that it seems to inconvenience them anyway, with these absurdly low positive rates.
- The feud between the AFL and Channel Seven has ratcheted up a notch, with threats that footballers will boycott the Seven-broadcast Brownlow Medal count. This is a particularly cruel blow to the solarium industry, already under pressure over recent cancer stories, regulatory scrutiny and the implications for Spring Racing over horse flu.
- The medical community has further entrenched its position on the issue with a Sports Medicine Australia statement declaring the AFL's policy "... reflects the modern approach in which those who use drugs should be treated as victims rather than criminals." There was a caveat, though, reminding the public that "... the responsibility of SMA members ... is to look after the athletes in their care".
- Victoria Police executed a search warrant on Channel Seven's Docklands HQ, presumably looking for evidence about the medical records. To date, there are no reports of the club HQ or the players in question being searched for evidence of drug use or trafficking. It's a funny old world, isn't it?
- Two people have been charged over stealing the records, and will face court in October. A 36-year-old man and a 31-year-old woman (from Ivanhoe West) have been charged with theft. To my knowledge, no charges have been laid against any of the footballers over their possession and use of drugs.
I wonder if the public's appetite for treating infrequent users of "party drugs" as "medical patients" (or "victims"!) will wane. By forcing the AFL's hand in this way, perhaps Channel Seven's actions will mean people will start to see this as it is - a discipline issue for which the AFL is ill-equipped to tackle.
Good Lord - this thing just keeps spiralling out of control! Now there are shocking allegations of a player at this club being an active drug dealer under investigation by the drug squad:
Det-Insp Steve Smith, head of the Victorian drug taskforce, confirmed the investigation into the high-profile player.
"Yes, we can confirm that the drug taskforce received information and that information was investigated," Det-Insp Smith said.
"But it was not taken any further because the information could not be substantiated and other operational contingencies at the time."
A source close to the AFL star said the investigated player's affinity with drugs "went to another level" when he started dealing.
"He would brag about making $10,000 a week from it," the source said. "He's had scales and cutting equipment just lying around his house. His teammates would just come over and pick it up."
The player would openly use and deal illicit substances during the Spring Racing Carnival, the source said.
"At the spring carny . . . it was rife, just out of control. Two or three times a day, every day ... he'd have it in his pocket and just do it then and there." (Daily Telegraph, 29/8/2007)
Wow. You can see why the AFL and AFLPA are fighting so hard to stop any public scrutiny of this issue. It's a powder keg waiting to blow. I think a lot of footy fans might look away about a few lines here and there. But large-scale dealing like this? We could start to see a big turn-around on this issue.
Here's the end-of-week wrap-up of the Medical Records Fiasco:
- The Victorian Supreme Court lives up to it's anachronistic reputation and extends the injunction suppressing further naming of the club involved (despite some 44 publications) and the identities of the various players (described by Eddie McGuire as "an open secret"). It may be reviewed in due course.
- Interestingly, some of the big names in AFL are openly questioning the AFL's drugs policy and the mis-directed attention on Channel 7, including high-profile coaches Mick Malthouse and Paul Roos, Geelong President Frank Costa and columnist Michelangelo Rucci.
- The rift between the Seven Network and the AFL players looks to continue, with officials of the players' union calling on an extended ban to continue until an apology is in place. Channel Seven is taking a hit in the ratings over this, though the effects look to be subsiding. Speculation of an apology being hammered out behind the scenes continue, but no word yet.
There's been no shortage of interest in this story, with over 6,000 hits to this page alone since it broke. Nearly all were from people looking to find the names of the players and the club referenced in the medical records. Opinions are very strong too, with the BigFooty forum going berserk. Who knows where this controversial issue will end up?
I must say I'm very impressed with the comments from Paul Roos. I think he gets it:
"I don't think (drug use) is a problem isolated to AFL football but I think the difference is AFL players have to realise that they are held to higher standards than the normal community," he said.
"Some people might argue that's unfair but you won't hear that argument from me.
"You are going to be held to higher standards, that's part of being an AFL player and being a role model.
"If you don't want to accept that, don't try to become an AFL player. That's just the reality of what they do, the reality of their job."
Roos admits he is extremely concerned about the issue, which he feels is escalating every week. (The Age, 31/8/2007)
The remarks from Mick Malthouse were damning of the effects of the current system:
"It's been a bad, bad year for the industry that is trying to convince young people and young sportsmen not to take drugs, hasn't it?" he said.
"The millions and millions that have been spent on `don't use drugs because it is going to do you harm' (campaign) crikey, this year has sent that down the gurgler."
And Matthews believed smarter drug testing was needed in the AFL. (The Age, 31/8/2007)
It's encouraging to see such frank assessments by senior figures being aired publicly. Hopefully, these voices are listened to and the warnings heeded.
Well, it looks like we can finally put this one to bed. Channel Seven has capitulated to the AFL and the players' union. The Seven Network issued an apology, withdrew from legal action against the court injunction on disclosing the ******** club and kowtowed before the unstoppable juggernaut that is footy in September:
The network, which has been the subject of a boycott from AFL players seeking retribution for running the report, issued a statement saying it regretted the damage caused.
"The Seven Network values the co-operation it receives from AFL players and sincerely regrets any damage which has been caused to our relationship with the players by virtue of a story which was aired on Friday, 24th August," the statement said.
"The network accepts the principle that the confidentiality of private medical records between a medical practitioner and his patients was paramount and critical to the treatment and welfare of a patient.
"The Commercial TV Industry Code of Practice only allows for the broadcasting of such material in any event when there is an identifiable public interest."
The statement said AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou was pleased with the network's decision and hoped the league and its broadcast partner could continue to work strongly together.
The AFL Players' Association (AFLPA) said it was too early to say whether players would call off their boycott against the network. (The Age, 4/9/2007)
When you see the frightening ability of the AFL to silence critics and use all the commercial and legal powers of a ruthless corporation in shutting down unpalatable news stories, you have to wonder if Dylan Howard doesn't have a point when he accuses the AFL of censorship.
No doubt we'll have more to say on this topic later.
Word Count: 2115