A decade after the so-called “blackest day in Australian sport”, the investigator whose report on drugs and organised crime led to suspensions for Cronulla and Essendon players, says it has become the “brightest day” because of the response from sports.
On the 10-year anniversary on Tuesday of the press conference that outlined the results of a 12-month investigation, former Australian Crime Commission chief John Lawler said, “Until that time, professional sport in Australia knew it had a problem but it had never been addressed”.
John Lawler during his time at the ACC.Credit:Michael Clayton-Jones
Lawler commended the creation of integrity units by major sports, the March 2021 formation of a federally funded National Integrity of Sport Unit and the increasing awareness by professional athletes of the risks of drug taking and associating with criminals.
“The phrase the ‘darkest [sic blackest] day’ was not coined by the ACC but by a former sports regulator of ASADA [Richard Ings],” he said. “It grabbed the headlines but history has shown the sporting codes reacted to the issues they confronted to their credit.”
The ACC merged with CrimTrac to become the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission in 2016. Lawler resigned shortly after the release of the report and has lingering disappointments.
“There was a lot of criticism of me at the time for getting all the heads of sports in the one room at the press conference,” he said. “But it was a shared problem, not just the major codes but sports like boxing and track and field as well. Their presence was acknowledgement of a widespread problem and therefore a chance it could be addressed.”
Paul Gallen hoists the Provan-Summons trophy aloft to end five decades of heartbreak for Sharks fans in 2016.Credit:Getty
However, it led to the politicisation of the issue. Coalition politicians criticised ministers of the then Labor federal government.
“Notwithstanding the fact we briefed [then opposition leader] Tony Abbott’s office, the politics divided them,” Lawler said, “with one side supporting the report and the other side looking to the negative.”
He also struggled to connect with a media demanding the ACC release the names of guilty players and clubs.
“There is a difference between intelligence and evidence which could not be shared with the public. This was not understood,” he said.
Essendon paid a heavy price for the supplements saga.Credit:Wayne Taylor
The ACC gathers evidence though coercive hearings, which can result in jail time for those who lie or withhold information. It obligates the ACC to say nothing publicly.
“It’s up to the clubs and the players to declare the problem,” Lawler said. “Some did; others didn’t. The media played on this by saying, ‘You haven’t named anybody, so therefore the report is baloney’. Yet no one can genuinely challenge the report because it was based on sworn testimony.”
Others criticised the report because it “damaged” sport but Lawler argues “sport is based on integrity and if this is undermined, sport is damaged”.
Lacking statistics, Lawler can’t say with certainty if the incidence of match fixing and use of performance enhancing drugs has declined in the subsequent decade but believes, “there must have been a reduction in the total number of cases”.
However, sports need to be vigilant, he counsels, because it is a status symbol for criminals.
“For organised crime, sport is attractive,” he says. “They can get inside information for match fixing and dealing drugs. They love rubbing shoulders with superstars. They get off on it.”
To some, the “blackest day in Australian sport” tag now belongs to the ball-tampering cricket scandal in South Africa almost five years ago. However, to Victorians and AFL supporters, the Essendon saga is still the darkest day. The anniversary attracted headlines in Melbourne this week but it passed with minimal interest in Sydney. Nothing demonstrates the difference between Australia’s two biggest cities and its dominant football codes more than the supplements saga.
Reputational damage meant everything to the Essendon players, who seemed to echo Cassio in Shakespeare’s Othello: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself.”
Essendon challenged the drugs charge; players were banished for a year and the club has not recovered.
Cronulla players accepted a backdated ban. As a result, they missed minimal games, did not lose money by pursuing the case in court and won a maiden premiership three years later. It’s almost as if captain Paul Gallen took Iago’s advice, also from Othello: “If thou wilt needs damn thyself, do it a more delicate way than drowning; make all the money thou canst.”
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