It seems in the past year we have seen the ‘fall from grace’ of several of our sporting personalities and champions. The most significant, if only for its international reach, was Lance Armstrong. A hero, a champion, a philanthropist. Everything you want to see in a hero. But not only did he let us down, he spat in our face. It really wasn’t as much about the cheating in the end, but the lying and the aggressive, bullying and even litigious way Armstrong dealt with accusations of him being a ‘drug cheat’. That would have been hurtful enough if it wasn’t for the millions of disheartened, crest-fallen, desperate cancer sufferers and survivors who saw in Armstrong a chance at hope, at survival, of beating the unbeatable! He put them in an untenable position of having to chose between continuing to believe in the champ who beat cancer and the man who had broken the rules and broken their hearts. As Oprah’s interview with the seven times ‘Tour de France’ winner had barely finished airing, you could read the Tweets and Facebook message of undying support for Armstrong. Their faith and belief in the face of so much outright deceit and narcissism was touching but also sad.
Now in Australia we’ve seen the case of the Essendon Football Club and the charges made by the AFL Commission of negligent governance and bringing the game into disrepute. While there are no charges or suggestion of using illegal or prohibited drugs, EFC’s cutting edge sports science programme was at best foolish, and at worst, as shown by the sanctions imposed, reckless and ignored the duty of care towards its players. In the firing line of those sanctions are two of the greatest footballers ever to grace the game – James Hird and Mark “Bomber” Thompson. When the supplements story first came to my attention in early 2012, I couldn’t have expected a more different result from the investigation and subsequent sanctions. While not an Essendon fan, the club had always held a soft spot in my heart from a young age. Timmy Watson, one of the youngest Essendon players at the time, was dashing, brave and skilled, and perhaps one of a few I knew from outside the Carlton team I had grown up to follow. I had even managed to get his autograph one year as we both travelled on the same airplane. There have always been non-Carlton footballers who I’ve had the greatest regard for. Men like Paul Roos, Jim Stynes, Robert Harvey and Paul Couch. Men with determination, class, integrity and a humanity that was not for show, and not for sale. James Hird was in that group for me. A champion player, a courageous captain, the type of footballer even opposing teams couldn’t help but respect and admire.
Hird now finds himself adrift for 12 months, NOT for drug cheating, as some would slanderously suggest, but because in the pursuit of taking the Essendon Football Club to a higher level he (along with others at the EFC) made errors of judgement and did not properly protect those in his charge. He failed in his duty of care. James Hird’s reputation as a brilliant athlete and champion of the AFL will not, and should never be questioned or diminished by his most recent failings. However, because he is a champion, a man that so many have looked up to as a shining example of integrity and honesty, his recent failings and behaviour have been his undoing. I speak of his sometimes arrogant behaviour, his perceived narcissism, and his lack of accountability or acceptance of wrong-doing. He has taken his punishment/sanction on the chin for the sake of the Essendon Football Club moving forward, and it seems he will be back in the Coach’s job when his suspension is complete. Where I believe James Hird is similar to Lance Armstrong is in the sense of betrayal of our expectations of champions and heroes. Hird was our champion, our golden boy, the exemplar of greatness and a great bloke to boot. No matter the outcome of the charges, he was always going to fall and fall hard in some people’s eyes. Some may question that if he had been more contrite from the beginning he may have walked away from this sorry saga retaining our respect and admiration. That may be true, but we will never know. For instead, in the eyes of some, he will always be tarnished. The unfortunate truth is that like many other champions of our past and present, James Hird will be always be seen as guilty. His crime, that of being a flawed human instead of the infallible superman we expected him to be.
© 2013 Benjamin MacEllen