The Essendon Football Club went to Perth tonight to play the West Coast Eagles. It was an extremely tough game. It should be a memorable game due to the Bombers winning away from home – a come-from-behind thriller for the ages played in hostile territory.
Unfortunately, that’s not what this game will be remembered for.
This game will be remembered for the West Coast fans booing Essendon captain Jobe Watson every time he got the ball.
Watson is universally respected for his hard play, hard work, his skill and his royal Essendon bloodline. His Brownlow Medal win in 2012 was a feel-good moment for every AFL fan. He’s the type of captain that leads from the front, puts his team on his back and carries them to the final siren, win or lose. He leaves nothing on the field. There is barely a sporting cliche that’s inappropriate for Jobe Watson.
Right: An emotional Watson after the West Coast game, receives the support of teammates. (News Limited)
So why did he get booed?
The Essendon Football Club is the subject of a massive scandal involving the alleged systematic doping of players through the 2012 season. The players thought the substances that were injected into their bodies were legal. The Australian and International doping agencies, ASADA and WADA, are adamant that they weren’t. The club has kept the facts close to their collective chest but last week, Jobe Watson came out in a TV interview and admitted that yes, he’d taken the banned peptide AOD9604.
This supplement is at the center of the scandal – a program intended to enhance the training and recovery ability of the team. It’s a program that is considered to have been beyond the rules, regardless of what the shadier characters involved believed about its legality or stated to their superiors.
Watson effectively confessed to being a participant in the program. He believes he’s an innocent participant (if such a thing exists) because he trusted the club’s medical and performance staff when they told him the supplement was legal. ASADA and WADA place the burden of responsibility solely on the player/athlete. The player has to do his/her own homework about what goes into his/her body. Trusting someone else is no excuse according to the ASADA/WADA code.
Throughout this scandal, the AFL press corps has done everything it can to defend the Essendon players. Many of the big-name commentators are former players themselves and the old-boys club comes into play here. They’re not going to dump on one of their own and tonight, to a man, they all decried the West Coast fans for their treatment of Watson. Innocent until proven guilty, they said, ignoring the fact that he’d actually confessed to using the supplement.
I think a lot of fans actually feel some level of sympathy for the players, to some degree. I felt uncomfortable with the booing tonight, myself. When you grow up in Australia – especially in Melbourne, where AFL football was born – these players are you, your brothers, your school mates, your friends. Everyone relates to AFL footballers because it’s a grass-roots community game and Australia is still a relatively close community. The degrees of separation are small here.
That communion between the fans and the game breeds care, affection, respect and passion. But passion can run both ways and there’s nothing an Australian sports fan hates more than a cheat.
We mock soccer players because of their soft fouls and bullsh** acting. We respect the capabilities of athletes but turn our noses up at their fat-headed posturing. We place our highest value on genuine effort, authenticity and the classic Australianism – not being a dickhead.
The booing of Jobe Watson wasn’t just a gentle jab from a hostile crowd on the other side of the country. AFL fans of other clubs haven’t had their voices heard but I think there is some genuine resentment about the fact that Essendon, as a club, allegedly undertook a program that their own investigation described as a pharmacological experiment in order to gain advantage.
AFL fans have paid silent respect to Essendon’s resilience under pressure this year because there has been no formal finding announced from the investigation as yet. But Watson’s admission last week gave AFL fans some confirmation of what everyone suspects – where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It also gave opposition fans a focal point for their opinions on this matter and the message is clear: it’s not OK to try and cheat the system.
We love our sport in Australia. It binds us, motivates us and forms the foundations for much of our local and national pride. It has to be clean. It has to be honest. To quote long-time football commentator, Rex Hunt – football isn’t life or death, it’s much more important than that.
Jobe Watson might well be football royalty, the son of a legend and an emerging legend in his own right. But tonight we learned that even the biggest legends can be brought back to earth if they cross a line and compromise the purity of the contest, deliberately or otherwise. Essendon’s resilience this year means nothing if it comes on the back of enhanced training in previous years. If they are benefitting from the use of banned supplements taken in the past then it’s not just character getting them over the line in these close contests, it’s quite possibly unlawful science and that’s not within the spirit of the game.
In many ways it’s a shame to penalise those who were probably unwitting participants in this program. The sanctity of the game demands it, however. Tonight, with the booing of a champion, a respected player, we saw the start of what’s to come. If the AFL/ASADA investigation into Essendon concludes with adverse findings against the club (which seems inevitable given Watson’s admission and the strictness of the WADA/ASADA code) and if it concludes with no real sanction against the club AND the players, tonight’s unpalatable display will seem like a picnic.
Commentators and ex-players can whine all they like. This is Australia and we don’t like (alleged) drug cheats in sport, deliberate or otherwise.