It’s a brand new year, and what better way to celebrate the fresh hopefulness of 2016 than by finally getting around to a topic that started in 2011 and has been stubbornly refusing to die ever since? As someone who generally regards organized sport the same way I regard opera (looks impressive, definitely not my thing), I’ve been keeping a reluctant eye on the Essendon Doping Saga ever since it first hit the news all those years ago. Sure it’s definitely an ethical issue, but much like the booing of Adam Goodes last year it’s also so far out of my comfort zone that I couldn’t summon the energy to the massive amounts of research necessary to know what the hell was going on, and who was in the right.
But much like Pauline Hanson, this is a topic that simply refuses to die. Multiple years, investigations, scandalous revelations and supposedly final court rulings and yet again the case has been appealed and ruled on at an international level this time. So screw it, let’s do this thing.
For those overseas or who have also managed to ignore the entire sordid tale, I strongly recommend you check out the Wikipedia page on the incident because buggered if I’m going to relay the entirety of it here. All you really need to know is that the Essendon Football Club (this is Australian Rules Football for those overseas, a rough combination of rugby, soccer, gridiron and a supermarket carpark punch-up, and superior to all four) is alleged to have intentionally injected their players with a banned performance-enhancing substance, were caught, were punished and have been fighting it in progressively higher courts ever since, with the whole shebang getting more and more ridiculous as it goes.
A disturbingly accurate comparison right here.
The most recent episode of this lead the Swiss-based World Anti-Doping Agency to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which in turn found Essendon guilty again and imposed two year suspensions on thirty-four players, affecting seventeen still-active AFL players who will miss the 2016 season. To be clear on how long this mess has been going on, seven of the plays involved have friggin’ well retired from the game and five others are now in different clubs, all of which have now been screwed by an event that happened five years ago.
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me be clear that I have no opinion whatsoever on whether or not Essendon is actually guilty of this. That’s a purely legal matter and as my half-arsed explanation up there demonstrates, I barely know enough about the case to explain what the hell it’s about.
No, what makes this an ethical issue (and something I’m actually capable of commenting on) is the interesting question that has come up from this most recent ruling: is it right for the players themselves to be punished?
Up until recently the players were generally considered the victims in this who debacle; poor guys who just wanted to play some footy being tricked into tacking illegal substances, under the guise of ‘health supplements’ by their dastardly coach and club. Previous rulings against Essendon explicitly punished the club as the responsible body for the incident – so what’s up with this new ruling putting the punishment on the players instead? How could it be just to hold them responsible for this situation when they not only had no idea what was happening, but were the ones being put in the most danger?
Probably not the face of many cunning schemes.
So what was the basis for the new ruling? Unsurprisingly, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (still wrapping my head around the fact that’s a thing) made its decision based on a strict set of rules; namely the World Anti-Doping Code. This code, which Essendon’s players were subject to, flat out states that every athlete is personally responsible for making sure that everything that goes into their bodies is 100% legit.
It is each athlete’s personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substance enters his or her body. Athletes are responsible for any prohibited substance or its metabolites or markers found to be present in their samples. Accordingly, it is not necessary that intent, fault, negligence or knowing use on the athlete’s part be demonstrated in order to establish an anti-doping violation …
The court found that they believed the Essendon players did not take every reasonable step to check that the injections they were given were legitimate, and so concluded that they were all personally responsible for the results.
From a legal point of view this is a headshot. Solid codes of practice like this, a great example of deontological ethics in practice, are excellent for keeping people accountable specifically because they’re really hard to talk your way around. Oh you made a mistake? You didn’t know what was going on? You were mislead or confused? Too bad buddy. You knew the rules, you agreed to the rules, the rules are very clear and easily accessed, and you broke the rules. Sucks to be you.
But ethics is not law and just because an argument holds legal water doesn’t mean it’s right, as demonstrated by the fact that slavery, heroine, child labour and a whole host of messed up stuff used to be perfectly legal.
Nothing like a misused South Park reference to seal your no-with-it-anymore cred.
So if we move past the question of whether the Essendon players broke the law, is their violation of the Code enough to make them ethically responsible for their doping violation? Well if we take the same deontological view as the Court does then yeah. You signed up to the code, you broke the code, case closed. Simple rules, simple consequences. Why are we still talking about this?
But as I’ve made abundantly clear on this blog, I dislike deontological ethical codes because they have a nasty tendency of being too simplistic. “Thou shalt not kill” or “Turn the other cheek” might sound like great rules on paper, but tend to break down a bit when some less pious bugger comes at you with a brick and eyes on your stuff. “Two wrongs don’t make a right” is also a great lesson, presuming society is working properly, but goes right out the window if there is no ‘good’ way of resolving your grievances. And it’s all very well to say “You are ultimately responsible for everything that goes into your body”, but when someone you trust in a position of authority over you tells you to take a pill, tells you it’s fine and the rest of your team goes along with it, suddenly that black and white, absolutist code starts to look a bit over the top yeah?
How far exactly should a player be expected to take the rule after all? Go to the logical extreme and they’d need to be suspicious of literally everything they eat, drink and breath just in case it has a banned substance in it somehow. And since eating, drinking and breathing are kinda mandatory, what then? Are players expected to haul around a chemical laboratory to analyse their inputs constantly for contaminants? Shit, take it even further and how can the players be sure that the people doing the testing are competent? This may all sound absurd but when you get right down to it, that’s what the World Anti-Doping Code requires; for each and every player to be 100% responsible for everything that goes into their body. This is both practically and literally impossible.
So if strict sets of rules aren’t enough to determine whether the Essendon players are responsible or not, how then can we figure it out? Well the standard approach society and particularly the media takes at this point, is to take all the parties involved and try to divide the blame between them. The coach is the one who made the decisions so he’s clearly mostly responsible, but the Essendon football club employs his so they have to be pretty responsible too. The AFL sets the policy so they’re a bit responsible – should have kept a closer eye on all this – but the AFL responds mainly to the demands of the public, so I suppose we’re all a bit responsible as well for our high expectations. So where does that leave us then? Let’s say… 50% to the coach, 20% to the club, 10% to the players, 5% to the AFL and the rest to the public. Sounds about right, yeah?
You see this approach pop up a lot whenever there’s some big news story that lacks an obvious bad guy or reason. Whether it’s the Columbine school massacre where the media tried to include Marilyn Manson, Daria and Doom in the blame, or more recently that time 4Chan leaked a bunch of celebrity nudes and everyone tried to figure out a way to both blame the internet and slut shame at the same time, the process tends to involve people pointing the figure at their favourite scapegoats, yelling a lot and achieving sweet bugger all.
That in turn probably has a lot to do with the fact that trying to divvy up blame like this is a totally ridiculous waste of everyone’s time. Sure it’s clear that multiple parties can be responsible for one event, especially since I also strongly argue that a person can be responsible for something even by not acting or failing to act, but this effort to divide up the responsibility like a pie is the problem here. Are we really trying to suggest that the Essendon coach is somehow less responsible for deliberately drugging his players, because the AFL’s could have done a better job? How are the two things related at all? As if the AFL pulling its socks up would magically make the coach even more of the bad guy somehow? Ridiculous.
Responsibility cannot be divided like this – instead it must be calculated for each person involved individually and with no reference to anyone else involved. To put it another way, it is both possible and likely that more than one person can be 100% responsible for an event. The question isn’t whether someone else also did something wrong, but rather what capacity each party had to fix things.
So what does this mean for the players? Basically the same outcome they just saw happen. Sure the coach is hugely responsible for the doping and has been punished accordingly. So too the club itself was wrong and has also been punished, based on the fact that it could and should have prevented the entire mess ever happening. And sure if we stretch it you could argue that the Australia Football League’s business structure, and the public by extension, put huge pressure on clubs to push the limits on player performance and so perhaps we are all somewhat responsible as well.
But what do all these responsibilities mean for the Essendon players? Not a damn thing. Each of their individual responsibility for the doping comes down to one simple question: could they reasonably have suspected the drug wasn’t legal, and if so, could they have prevented its use on them? Once again gentle reader, I am no lawyer and know next to nothing about the facts of this case, but based on the findings of the Court of Arbitration for Sport the answer appears clear: yes they could have. And so, they reap the consequences of their decisions.
Let’s be honest here, this whole ‘Responsibility cannot be divided’ theory is a pretty terrifying one and it runs hard against our usual way of figuring out who to blame when something goes wrong. But ethics isn’t about what’s normal, or what makes us feel comfortable or even safe – it’s about what is correct. The Essendon team of 2012 has learned to their sorrow the price of not taking complete responsibility for their own fates. Hopefully this lesson will not fall on ears more concerned with blame than responsibility.