AFL integrity has taken a battering
Roger Vaughan
11:40 AEST Fri Mar 15 2013

Australia's biggest sport starts the new season with an integrity crisis.

Even without "peptide" suddenly becoming as well-known a word as "premiership", the AFL has suffered through a horror off-season.

Star Sydney recruit Kurt Tippett and Adelaide chief executive Steven Trigg were suspended for their roles in the Crows' draft tampering and salary cap scandal.

Dean Bailey and Chris Connolly were suspended and Melbourne received the third-highest fine in AFL history - even though the AFL effectively cleared the club of tanking.

It was a confusing outcome to years of innuendo and speculation, with the finding determined after back-room haggling between rival QCs.

Collingwood prompted the league to hold a summit on illicit drugs use. It emerged that some players were self-reporting to avoid any sanctions under the controversial "three strikes" policy.

Each on its own was a huge issue.

But all became minor spot fires in comparison in early February.

First, grim-faced Essendon officials announced they were under a joint Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) and AFL investigation for supplements - understood to be peptides - that players took last season.

Peptides can be perfectly legal, but also completely banned, depending on their chemistry.

If ASADA rule that Essendon breached the game's anti-doping code, it is the biggest crisis in AFL history. Period.

Even if ASADA finds there are no doping violations, there is the league's investigation and Essendon's own independent probe into "irregular practices".

Then, two days later, it stunningly became even bigger.

AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou was one of the top sports officials standing alongside federal government ministers as the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) announced findings from a major investigation into sport.

The report outlined concerns about doping, betting and organising crime, prompting former anti-doping boss Richard Ings to call it the blackest day in Australian sport.

One AFL club - later shown to be Essendon - and an unnamed player were mentioned in the report.

The ASADA investigation means the Bombers' hopes about this season are tempered with concern, even dread.

At some point in the next few months - no-one knows when - the anti-doping agency will hand down its findings.

In the mean time, Demetriou readily admits the league has a battered image to repair.

The AFL has beefed up its integrity unit and is clamping down on what Demetriou calls "rogue elements" within clubs.

"We've had Melbourne, we've had Adelaide, we've had Essendon," Demetriou told AAP.

"People are entitled to have a view about the ethics and purity of the competition."

But Demetriou is confident the AFL has handled the Essendon and ACC revelations in the right way.

"We're not trying to hide anything, we've been very open with the public.

"Essendon is cooperating - I think we're going about these things as people would expect: professionally, transparently and, in my view, absolutely honestly."

Of course, there are always other issues - some coaches and players are strongly opposed to the AFL's planned cap on interchanges, due to start next season.

Two days before the season starts, the AFL and clubs will meet to discuss the crucial issue of equalisation.

But there has been good news, too - Hawthorn official Mark Evans was a popular choice to take over the crucial role of AFL football operations manager.

It looks like Perth's new stadium will go ahead. Adelaide Oval and the SCG are being redeveloped.

And no matter how heavy the gloom, at this time of year in football there is always hope.

In early March, Demetriou was guest speaker at a major industry dinner.

He preceded his speech with a five-minute highlights package from last September's classic grand final.

"The AFL competition is never devoid of challenges," Demetriou says.

"I started off the speech by saying we must never lose sight of how wonderful this game is.

"Despite the challenges, this game is incredibly resilient.

"It (last year's grand final) reminds us that despite what's going on, the game is an incredible game.

"I have great faith in the game."

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