David Sharpe’s office is full of clues to his decorated career in tackling international organised crime and terrorism.
A baseball bat from the FBI, certificates of appreciation from US Homeland Security and Drug Enforcement Administration, a photo with Pope Francis after a briefing on the Mafia.
Now his job is to tackle the ugly side of sport.
“I’m living the dream, combining my passion for sport and law enforcement background into one role,” he says.
Australia’s new anti-doping chief has the sort of build that rugby league commentators describe as “nuggetty” (170 cm) and the sort of corruption-busting resume that implies a habit of head-cracking.
But just days into his new job, he’s striking a surprisingly diplomatic stance.
When asked if the AFL had a conflict of interest as both brand-protector and adjudicator in the Essendon supplements scandal, he says, “I don’t think so.”
Timeline: Essendon doping saga
Take a look back at how events unfolded in ASADA’s investigation into the Essendon Football Club.
“In the absence of anything else, each of the sporting codes have done a very good job in setting up their own integrity bodies and their own tribunals with what was in front of them at the time,” he says.
“We evolve from that … I think a lot of credit needs to be given to the sports for actually establishing the sort of tribunals and integrity bodies in the first place because out of that stems your education and welfare roles.”
He says brand protection cuts both ways.
“If it’s promoted out there that the [sport’s] brand is a good brand and identifies with clean sport … I think it’s a good thing,” he says.
It’s a tone and position at odds with that of his predecessor, Ben McDevitt, who butted heads with the AFL over its dual role.
Independent tribunal ‘absolutely a requirement’
ASADA was forced into a controversial “partnership” with the sport because it lacked — and still lacks — the authority to compel evidence from players without the AFL’s involvement.
The saga ended with a “win” for ASADA, as it backed a successful WADA challenge to the AFL Tribunal’s result.
As Sharpe says: “No party came out of Operation Cobia [the Essendon investigation] unscathed.”
But in the end he is in fierce agreement with McDevitt that the AFL Tribunal, along with all individual sports’ tribunals, should be replaced by a national independent body.
_ CEO of ASADA Ben McDevitt_
PHOTO: Previous ASADA boss Ben McDevitt butted heads with the AFL over its dual role. (AAP: Alan Porritt)
An independent tribunal, Sharpe says, is “absolutely a requirement”.
“It makes a very clean and clear system … I think we just have to set it up in partnership with the sports… and make sure it works for everyone.”
Such a tribunal is expected to be one of the key recommendations of the current James Wood inquiry into sport integrity, that could mean no team or sport needs to repeat the unfortunate Essendon saga.
And it’s clear Sharpe is keen to use his appointment to forge closer relationships with the sports as they enter into complex negotiations about the form that tribunal should take, and the protections offered for sports’ sovereignty.
How the saga unfolded
Read how an unexpected press conference in 2013 turned into one of the AFL’s biggest stories.
Sharpe wants to reposition the agency as an athlete-focused body.
“I think what’s critical to us is having a greater understanding of the pressures on athletes,” he says.
“Since I was an athlete it’s certainly changed. The pressure is very different, the commercial impact very different. So I am keen to get out and engage and have the staff get out and have a greater engagement with the sports.”
ASADA will conduct forums in the next few months with athletes, coaches, media and schoolteachers — education is his mantra.
Sharpe’s league background brings ‘greater understanding’
Sharpe’s 30-year career with the Australian Federal Police included a stint in Washington DC dealing with Australian links to organised crime across three continents.
But the police force was only his second professional “family”. The first was rugby league.
_ New ASADA boss David Sharpe looks down and writes in his office._
PHOTO: It’s clear David Sharpe is keen to forge a closer relationship with the sports. (ABC News: Mary Gearin)
The Wagga boy played at centre with the Canberra Raiders juniors and played first grade for many years in the Canberra Raiders cup, making the 50-year-old the first ASADA chief executive to have played sport at a professional level.
He took on an assistant coaching role at the Canberra Raiders under Mal Meninga in 2001-02 and later spent two years as the Raiders’ manager.
Sharpe laughs when asked to describe himself as a player.
"How I would describe myself or how would others? Because it’s a long time since I’ve played, and I got better every year after I retired!
"I would describe myself as reasonably tough, and given my size in the game compared to others, it was a ‘never say die’ attitude.
"I was never going to be beaten and I was never going to be told I was too small to play sport.
“I’ve taken a lot of that into life with everything I’ve done.”