West Coast bombshell demands so many answers
March 21, 2017 2:00am
A PREMIERSHIP should not be the only measure of success for a football club.
Even in the hyper-competitive world of professional Aussie rules, the AFL’s 18 clubs must also be judged on their performance as guardians of young men — and now women — talented enough to join their ranks.
Middle-aged coaches and club officials have a moral obligation to give players — even the immature and reckless ones — the best chance of growing into well-adjusted adults. Sometimes this requires a firm hand and discipline. Certainly, it can require putting player welfare ahead of onfield performance.
And the AFL, as the custodian of our great national game, has an overarching responsibility to ensure the clubs nurture their youngsters by following the rules and having the right culture on and off the field.
Today, the Herald Sun lays bare what happens at a club when those in charge fail this test. We have obtained the top-secret AFL report into the drugs crisis that shattered the West Coast Eagles in 2007.
It was written by former Victorian Supreme Court judge William Gillard, QC, the eminent legal figure appointed by the AFL as its special investigator.
It makes for confronting reading. It amounts to a devastating indictment of Eagles officials.
Counter to the public interest, the Gillard report has been kept secret by the AFL for nine years.
While the report was handed to the AFL and the Eagles in February 2008, its findings cannot be dismissed as simply a history lesson.
Because the consequences of the corrupted culture at the Eagles spanning more than six years until 2007 are more relevant than ever as the young men involved — albeit some of them arrogant troublemakers — can now be seen rotting in jail, battling drug addiction, financially ruined and pretty much broken. Among them are Ben Cousins, Daniel Kerr and Daniel Chick.
Read the Gillard report — albeit written some years before these young men truly hit rock bottom — and it’s clear there is a direct line between the culture of the Eagles that not only enabled their rampant drug abuse but covered it up, and the destroyed lives of the former stars who perhaps would be in a healthier place today with some tough love.
All of these young lives were betrayed by the club that should have protected them from themselves; all in pursuit of a flag.
On page 43 of his report, Gillard states: “The culture could be described as the view held by players and the club, that if they were successful on the field, what they did outside the club was of little consequence ... and if trouble resulted, the club would take steps to minimise the gravity of the misconduct and impose a fairly lenient sanction, especially if the player concerned was one of the better players.”
On page 59, Gillard states: “The club had sat on its hands for a period in the order of three years and probably longer where it did not take adequate steps to deal with a burgeoning drug problem.”
On page 60, Gillard states: “In my opinion, the evidence demonstrates that the club’s approach to discipline during the period 2001 to 2007 failed to instil a sense of responsible behaviour, and led to a culture which played a significant part in the scheduled conduct and illicit drug-taking. The club chose to ignore rumours and evidence of drug-taking which can be traced back to 2001.”
None of this is to say that Cousins and Kerr and others do not share some culpability for the decisions they made as young men.
But Gillard says: “The club, despite indications as far back as mid-2004 and probably earlier, failed to address a burgeoning drug problem.”
By failing to act, the West Coast Eagles betrayed the club’s young stars in the ruthless pursuit of on-field glory which ultimately came with a one-point victory over Sydney to claim the 2006 premiership.
And all of this happened on the watch of two significant football leaders: Eagles CEO Trevor Nisbett and coach John Worsfold.
While the former players, in particular Cousins, are ruined, Worsfold and Nisbett have continued as leaders in the AFL; Worsfold now as coach of Essendon and Nisbett remaining at the helm of the Eagles.
Most damaging for the new Essendon coach, the Gillard report finds that he was warned of an illicit drug problem in 2002, but it was not until the Eagles were knocked out of the finals in 2007 that he really took a stand in front of the playing group. And by then it was too late.
Almost 10 years after it ended in tears, Worsfold must today confront some serious questions. It’s clear he didn’t do enough.
Similarly, Nisbett needs to take some responsibility for a catalogue of serious failings over several years.
The current board of the Eagles will surely have some tough questions for him.
As for the AFL, it stands condemned for not releasing this report in February 2008.
Both chairman Mike Fitzpatrick and CEO Andrew Demetriou — who have both now moved on — had an obligation to make it public. It’s clear from correspondence from Demetriou that the AFL was paranoid about it being leaked. Well, it’s taken nine years, but now it has been leaked. And that’s a healthy thing.
The Gillard report flagged that there were major problems with the drug-testing regime and called for the formation of a truly independent body to deal with player misbehaviour. The AFL failed to act, only tightening drug testing recently.
And what of the Eagles’ 2006 premiership?
While Gillard does not conclude Eagles stars played during the season or finals while high on illicit drugs, it’s difficult to believe — given the weight of the evidence — that they weren’t.
Did this improve their performance?
This is no doubt a question many fans concerned about the integrity of footy’s greatest prize will be asking today