Blinded no more

After a summer of controversy involving crooked third-party deals, likely performance enhancing drug use, criminal association and a tanking probe, our blindfolds have finally been removed to reveal that everything is not “right” in Australian Rules football.

How could we have been so blinded?

“We do things the honest Australian way.” Or that’s how we reassured ourselves as sports lovers.

“We aren’t anything like the rest of the world. Not like FIFA who accepts bribes for World Cup bids or American baseball teams who made the playoffs with the help of drug cheating athletes.” It might be time to recalibrate our moral compasses because our findings have been wrong. We cannot boast that our sport is uniquely immune from the corrupting temptations that other sports face across the globe.

But should this come as such a shock? Take cricket, for example. Historian David Kynaston posits that Australia’s most cherished summer game, rose to prominence in the early 19th Century principally as a “vehicle for betting”. In 1998 Shane Warne and Mark Waugh were caught in an embarrassing scandal, accused of receiving payments for throwing a Test match, highlighting again that Australian athletes are not immune to the presence of temptation.

We should no longer think that cricket, AFL or any other codes are incorruptible.

Whenever there is a large amount of money and competitive consequence at stake there is always the risk of athletes and authorities going past the legal and moral boundaries.

Sometimes the pursuit of securing that winning edge, even if it’s tossing matches for long-term benefit, can spiral out of control. Sponsors, investors, coaches, teammates and unforgiving fans all test an individual and club’s moral resolve.

Lance Armstrong might have secured the “Most Pompous and Unapologetic Asshole” award on Oprah’s show, proudly announced by ESPN’s Bill Simmons, but AFL House might just have grasped the “Most Chronic Spin King” mantle – sorry Warney.

The AFL is the ultimate defender of the “brand”. The AFL spin that its clubs’ dealings are carefully regulated and that all is above board.

The AFL’s inability to cope and respond swiftly and dutifully to accusations of tanking and shady third party deals show that they no longer deserve the public’s trust.

The AFL’s previous denial that tanking does not exist and that illicit drug use is not a massive concern in Aussie Rules is as laughable as NBA Commissioner David Stern telling a reporter that he doesn’t see how performance enhancing drugs would help player performances.

The AFL’s brand, through no fault but its own, is severely damaged by this summer’s long list of revelations.

Unfortunately for Essendon, and even Melbourne, two clubs in the midst of destabilizing scandals, neither has the luxury of the benefit of the doubt, which has protected sport and its fans from confronting the worst. We used to turn a blind eye to any suspicion as long as we were entertained with the big hits, big marks and big tackles. This summer’s catalogue of indiscretions has seen to it that all athletes and administrators alike suffer the public’s instant guilty verdict.

Timing is everything. The Bombers are the local sporting entity put on trial immediately following Armstrong’s public admittance to using PEDs. There could have rarely been a more hypersensitive moment for a bombshell like this to drop.

In cricket, Australians have an old-time response to questions about match-fixing: Aussies always play to win. And therein lies the Australian public’s attitude towards sport. We assumed that all our athletes are stirred by the desire for honest and tough competition – for the thrill of victory. Nothing else matters.

After this summer, the tone in Australian sport has certainly changed.

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