Why did the Essendon players take drugs?

Now commonly referred to as the Supplements Saga, 34 Essendon players were guilty of doping charges and banned for the 2016 AFL season.

While they were initially cleared of all charges by the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal (due to insufficient evidence), an appeal from the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) found 34 past and presence players guilty, leaving the team down 12 players for the 2016 season.

So, why did these players take the drugs in the first place?

Like many legal issues, it’s not always so black and white. There were a number of factors that played into their decision.

First and foremost, the drug administered to Essendon players that led to their suspension in 2016 was only listed as a banned substance several months after the injections were stopped.

We take a look at all the reasons the Essendon players chose to take the drugs and the outcome of this decision.

What drugs did the Essendon players take?

Before we take a look at why the players took the drugs in the first place, it’s important to understand what drug we are talking about.

Thymosin Beta-4 is a peptide that is found naturally in the body. They are designed to augment specific functions and can actually promote restoration. Here are some of the benefits that come from Thymosin Beta-4:

  • Boost immune system
  • Decrease scar tissue
  • Increase collagen
  • Restore hair
  • Improves wound healing
  • Encourages body repair

The key is that it promotes systematic healing. Not just through the skin, but also the brain, spinal cord and the heart.

Why did the Essendon players take drugs?

Here are some of the key reasons behind the Essendon player’s decision to take the Thymosin Beta-4.

1) They thought the supplements were legal and approved

This is a hotly disputed subject and one that we aren’t going to get into the politics of. It is believed (although disputed) that the drug – Thymosin Beta-4 – was only logged as prohibitive on 4 February 2013, which is months after the players stopped using them.

According to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, the substance has always been banned under the WADA code and never approved for human consumption.

In the end, it doesn’t matter where the answer to this matter lies when looking at why the players took the drugs. It comes down to what they believed at the time.

In all likelihood, the players believed the drug was both legal and approved at the time they were taking it.

It was following weeks of speculation that Bombers coach James Hird, CEO Ian Robson and chairman David Evans contact the AFL and Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) launched an immediate investigation into supplement use at the club on 5 February 2013.

2) They trusted their coach

Another reason the Essendon players took the drugs is simply because they were told to.

When playing AFL at a professional level, it is conceivable that the players never question what their coach, captain or manager asked of them.

The players may not have been aware of what drugs they were taking or the effects of them. They may have simply just been following their teammates and doing what they thought was the right thing at the time.

It does show the importance of checking what is going into your body and not blinding trusting authority figures. If in doubt, a simple call to ASADA will answer any questions you might be having about it.

We now know that “doing what your manager asks you to do” isn’t a defence that holds up when it comes to drug use. But that the time, that’s likely exactly what the Essendon players were doing.

All players paid a high price for the degree of trust they placed on their club. So, how did it apparently work?

According to the case put forward by WADA, Essendon sports scientist Stephen Dank had a history with Thymosin Beta-4. Shane Charter was engaged to source the drug, which was then delivered to the players through a series of injections.

3) The perceived benefits of what drugs they were accused of taking

Photograph: Joe Castro/AAP

It’s no secret that AFL is a dangerous sport. In fact, it’s one of the most dangerous sports out there and the cause of a high number of hospitalisaitons.

Hospital-admitted injuries (which make up 30% of all Australian Football hospital presentations) are usually fractures, sprains or strains affecting the wrists, hands, shoulders, head or face, lower leg and knee.

The most common injury in AFL is a fracture, while the most common region of the body to be injured is the head. Which is why it’s easy to see how dangerous AFL can be. Soft tissue injuries are also very common in the hamstring, quadriceps, and calf muscles.

Here’s a rundown on the most common injuries in AFL:

  • Hamstring injuries: 19.1 missed games/club/season in 2015
  • ACL injuries: 16.7 missed games/club/season in 2015
  • Shoulder Sprains and Dislocations: 11.5 missed games/club/season in 2015
  • Leg and football Fractures: 8.6 missed games/club/season in 2015
  • Ankle sprain/ joint injuries: 7.2 missed games/club/season in 2015

Understanding these facts and figures can help gain some insight into why the players may have been keen to try the drug.

Thymosin Beta-4 helps form new blood vessels and to regenerate the tissue. It also decreases the number of myofibroblasts in wounds which results in decreased scar formation and fibrosis.

Understand how common injury is in AFL, it’s easy to see why a drug with this kind of ability might be appealing to players.

The fact is, there are very minimal side effects that come with the drug, yet plenty of benefits when it comes to body performance and being able to heal at a much fast rate.

In the eyes of the players, it meant more time on the field and less time recovering from very likely injuries.

4) They were looking for an edge over the competition

Professional AFL is extremely competitive. It actually only became a professional sport in 1993, and prior to that only those who were the best of the best made a living from it.

Today, there are 18 teams across the country that make up the AFL. They play 22 home and away season games throughout the year, the top eight teams qualifying for finals.

These top eight then play-off in four-round finals which culminates in the Grand Final at the end. There is a lot of pressure to be the best of the best when it comes to this sport.

The Essendon players may have consciously chosen to the take the drugs in the hope of getting an edge on their competition and taking the title for that year.

The last time Essendon had taken that highest title was in 2000, then taking the spot of runners-up in 2001.

The Essendon players could have simply wanted to regain that title again and see their team win the Premiership, which led to their decision to take the drugs.

AFL isn’t just a game. It’s a career and livelihood for these players. And it’s a chance to be a part of history. It’s easy to understand how this quest for fame may have impaired their judgement and led to their decisions.

5) They were afraid to speak up

Another possibility is that some of the team were simply too afraid to speak up against those in higher power.

As mentioned, AFL was more than just a game to these players. It was (and for many still is) their livelihood.

While they may have known what was going on, and understood that it wasn’t the right decision – for the sake of their career they may have chosen to stay silent.

Knowing they were getting regular injections, it’s hard to fathom the Essendon players didn’t have some idea of what was going on. But to what extent they understood – or actively sought to understand – is anyone’s guess.

You could liken it to any other job. Blindly following your boss’ orders and choosing to turn a blind eye in the hope of keeping that job. It’s not a decision everyone would make but certainly would appeal to many.

There’s also the “group” mentality at play here.

AFL teams become family to many of the players. They train together, they watch out for one another, they play together. If the rest of the “family” is lining up for these injections, many players would just fall in line to be one of the team.

While we always say not to give in to group pressure, when there’s a desire to do so, it’s hard to put a stop to it.

Team camaraderie is strong in sport. And it’s a bond that is likely to affect many decisions.

How long were the Essendon players banned for?

Credit: AAP Image/David Crosling

All we know for sure is that these drugs were taken for a period of time, and punishments were laid down as a result.

Essendon was excluded by the AFL from the 2013 finals. The club was also fined $2 million and stripped of its first two draft picks for the 2013 draft and a second-round pick in 2014.

David Evans stepped down as chairman and Paul Little took over. This all occurred before the players were cleared on 31 March 2015 by the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal due to the lack of evidence.

While ASADA chose not to appeal the ruling, WADA picked it up and took it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

In January 2016, the final verdict was passed down. 34 past and present players were banned for 12 months. While some players retired and others moved clubs, here’s the verdict for those affected by the outcome back in 2016:

  • Jake Carlisle (St Kilda): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Paddy Ryder (Port Adelaide): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Angus Monfries (Port Adelaide): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Stewart Crameri (Western Bulldogs): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Jake Melkshame (Melbourne): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Jobe Watson (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Dyson Heppell (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Michael Hurley (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Brent Stanton (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Tom Bellchambers (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Tayte Pears (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Davide Myers (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Travis Colyer (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Michael Hibberd (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Cale Hooker (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Heath Hocking (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Ben Howlett (Essendon): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Corey Dell’Olio (South Fremantle): banned until 14 November 2016
  • Alwyn Davey (Palmerston): banned until 15 February 2017
  • Ariel Steinberg (Williamstown): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Alex Browne (Northern Blues): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Luke Davis (Aberfeldie): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Dustin Fletcher (retired)
  • Leroy Jetta (Palmerston): banned until 15 February 2017
  • Mark McVeigh (GWS): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Brent Prismall (Footscray): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Nathan Lovett-Murray (Rumbalara): banned until 15 December 2016
  • Ricky Dyson (Bundoora): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Sam Lonergan (Launceston): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Kyle Hardingham (Pascoe Vale): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Scott Gumbleton (Banyule): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Brendan Lee (East Perth): banned until 13 November 2016
  • Henry Slattery (Nuriootpa): banned until 13 November 2016
  • David Hille (retired)

Moving on

Knowing what they do now, it’s hard to say whether or not these players would make the same choices if given another chance.

Too many factors played into their decision and there were too many unknowns at the time.

What is clear was that this controversy caused a bombshell through the AFL that is still felt today. If anything, it serves as a warning that drugs will not be taken lightly.

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