Perennial AFL powers Essendon are at risk of long-term ruin after CAS stunned the league by banning 12 current players for anti-doping offences.
Already struggling to recover from their supplements scandal, the Bombers suffered the blackest day in the club’s history on Tuesday when the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled against 34 current and past players.
While it was always 50-50 how CAS would rule on WADA’s appeal, no one in the wider AFL thought any bans would be more than a few weeks.
But the players were given no discounts and banned for two seasons.
Backdating means they are suspended until around November-February, meaning 17 current players – including five who have moved to rival clubs – lose this season.
The universal reaction at Essendon, the AFL and the AFL Players Association was shock and dismay.
Twelve Essendon players, including many of their most important players – captain Jobe Watson, Dyson Heppell and Brent Stanton – are out for the year.
The same applies to the five 2012 Bombers who are now at other clubs, including St Kilda’s big recruit Jake Carlisle.
It dashes any hopes of Essendon making an immediate on-field recovery, with all the suspended players to be replaced by top-ups.
And the demoralising saga will continue to hurt the club off the field, even allowing for Essendon’s many efforts in the past three years to recover from the saga.
Watson might have played his last game for the club and the AFL will decide next month whether he is stripped of his 2012 Brownlow Medal.
While players association boss Paul Marsh spoke of looking at an appeal, this probably marks the end of the formal anti-doping process that started in February 2013.
The AFL anti-doping tribunal initially cleared the players last March, but WADA appealed and that led to Tuesday’s bombshell CAS verdict.
Marsh added there is a very high likelihood of banned players taking legal action against the club over the scandal.
Given the enormity of the challenges facing Essendon, the obvious parallel is Carlton.
The Blues are yet to recover 13 years after receiving severe AFL penalties for salary cap breaches.
New Essendon chairman Lindsay Tanner again apologised to fans for the sordid mess of the supplements saga.
“The supplements program of 2012 was a mistake of the highest magnitude,” he said.
“That said, the penalty imposed on the 34 players is manifestly unfair.”
Tanner also made a call to arms to their fans and is bullish that the Bombers can recover quickly, adding other clubs would have fallen apart by now.
“It’s presenting us with some pretty extreme challenges – we’re up for that challenge,” he said.
“I believe we will recover quicker than 13 years, a lot quicker, but ultimately it’s in our hands.”
In other developments:
* Banned sports scientist Stephen Dank, who oversaw the 2012 supplements program, maintained his innocence and is adamant he never administered the 34 players the banned substance thymosin beta-4.
* ASADA chief executive Ben McDevitt called the scandal “the most devastating self-inflicted injury by a sporting club in Australian history”.
* Hird, who coached the club in 2012, had a 12-month AFL suspension in 2014 and lost his job last year, blasted the CAS ruling as a “miscarriage of justice”.
* AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick said the saga was a stain on the game, but said it would not define Essendon.