- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

In what Australian rules football administrators described as a “stain on our game,” 34 players involved in Essendon’s supplement program in 2012 were suspended for the 2016 season.

The ruling came Tuesday after the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld an appeal from the World Anti-Doping Agency against an Australian Football League tribunal’s decision to clear them.

Almost 10 months after the AFL’s anti-doping tribunal stated it could not be “comfortably satisfied” that any of the players had violated anti-doping rules by using Thymosin Beta-4 under the club’s supplements program during the 2012 season, CAS announced it had ruled in favor of WADA and set aside the initial decision.

The sanctions came as a shock to some, but not to anti-doping officials.

In the end, players and administrators of Australia’s homegrown game had to accept that athletes are ultimately responsible for whatever ends up in their systems.

Of the 34 players, a dozen still are contracted to Melbourne-based Essendon, including the AFL’s 2012 player of the year Jobe Watson, five are playing for other clubs and the others have retired or been de-listed.

“As tough as the sanction feels, the AFL accepts the decision of CAS,” AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick said.

Gillon McLachlan, the AFL’s chief executive, described the sanction as “devastating” for the players.

“Our view is that they have been horribly let down by the administration of the time,” he said. “But the club has sought to acknowledge what has happened and move forward from those events.”

Watson will have to meet with the AFL to determine the ramifications for his Brownlow Medal, awarded to the best and fairest player in the league. The AFL said Essendon would be permitted to top up its squad with 10 additional players in 2016.

Former coaches and union officials were critical of the severity of the player sanctions.

James Hird, who was head coach during the 2012 season and has already served a year-long ban from the game, said the penalties were “a miscarriage of justice.”

AFL Players’ Association chief executive Paul Marsh said the players involved were not drug cheats.

“We are struggling to understand how the CAS decision can be so different to that of the AFL anti-doping tribunal,” Marsh said. “If the players were administered with banned substances, they have been deceived. They are the victims, not the perpetrators.”

In its judgment, CAS said it was satisfied the players had taken the banned substance and were significantly at fault. It imposed mandatory two-year bans, meaning most of the 34 players will be suspended until Nov. 13.

The court rejected an argument of “no significant fault, no significant negligence” which could have drastically reduced the sentences.

“If the AFL tribunal’s decision had prevailed, it would have set a damaging precedent for future non-analytical anti-doping cases and, therefore, been detrimental for anti-doping efforts worldwide,” WADA director general David Howman said.

It was the severity of the penalties that shocked those who believed any bans imposed by the court might be backdated so heavily the players would miss only a handful of games.

While the domestic media speculated that players would take legal action in civil courts, the CAS verdict, delivered by a three-man panel headed by British barrister Michael Beloff, is likely the last step in the anti-doping process that started in February 2012 when Essendon announced its supplements program was being investigated.

ASADA chief executive Ben McDevitt said the “unfortunate episode has chronicled the most devastating self-inflicted injury by a sporting club in Australian history.”

“Unfortunately, despite their education, (the players) agreed to be injected with a number of substances they had little knowledge of, made no enquiries about the substance and kept the injections from their team doctor and ASADA,” he said. “At best, the players did not ask the questions, or the people, they should have. At worst, they were complicit in a culture of secrecy and concealment.”

The nutritionist behind the supplements program has been banned for life by the AFL, but maintains he is innocent of doping allegations and threatened legal action.

Essendon chairman Lindsay Tanner said the 2012 supplements program “was a mistake of the highest magnitude.”

“It’s heartbreaking for the players, who will struggle to understand how two tribunals could come to two different conclusions from the same evidence,” Tanner said. “But as a club, we should have had more robust systems in place to ensure the protection of our players.”

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