There are several words that the Rugby League world and community is sick to death of and would love to never hear again. They are ASADA, WADA and the Cronulla Sharks. The 18 month supplement saga came to a head late last week and from what we have been told, this is finally the end with both NRL CEO Dave Smith and ASADA boss Ben McDevitt believing that WADA is satisfied with ASADA’s findings, it’s handling of the investigation and the punishments that have been handed down to the 17 Cronulla players that were embroiled in the drama which took place in 2011.
So where too now for the Sharks? Do they just put this behind them, sweep it under the rug and forget it ever happened? If only if it was that easy. The damage done to the Cronulla-Sutherland Football Club’s brand and image is almost permanent and irreparable. They’ve lost creditability, commercial opportunities, sponsors and members. Whilst they will always have their loyal band of fans who will stick with the club through thick and thin, attracting new fans and members to the Shire based club will be mission impossible for even the greatest marketers in the world.
And let’s not forget about the damage done to ASADA. Australia’s national anti-doping governing body’s reputation. The length and duration of its investigation became laughable. The only thing to top the long, drawn out process was it’s findings and the inevitable punishments, which saw all current players receive a 3 month ban, resulting in players still playing in the National Rugby League missing a total of 3 games. ASADA has justified its punishment saying that penalties were backdated to November 2013, as that is when ASADA originally concluded its investigation.
But let’s take a step back for a minute and assess the almighty hypocrisy and inconsistency in ASADA’s penalties that they issued to the Cronulla players that have now been convicted of willingly or unwillingly taking banned substances that under the letter of the law enhanced a players performance. Previous indiscretions by Rugby League players were much more severe. Ask the likes of Wayne Richards, Clinton Schifoske, Rodney Howe, Robbie O’Davis, Matt Spence, Kevin McGuinness, Craig Field, Wendell Sailor who either tested positive to performance enhancing or recreational drugs. All players were suspended between 22 weeks to 2 years depending on the circumstances.
Yet the Sharks players receive 3 games? How farcical. Every athlete across every sport, both nationally and internationally, is screaming blue murder. It is said that the extraordinary short-term ban is a compromise for the way ASADA handled the entire investigation. Does this government agency realise that is has become the laughing stock by all national sports, officials and athletes? Sunday meat tray raffles at a local RSL club are more organised and managed than this supposed esteemed professional association.
We now know the NRL has banned any convicted Sharks player from attending any Rugby League awards evening, including the Dally M’s. And rightly so. Roosters and NSW legend Brad Fittler was quite vocal saying that he did not think Paul Gallen should receive the award that was named after Fittler, the Brad Fittler Medal, which goes to the best NSW Rugby League player due to now being found guilty of taking performance enhancing drugs. Unwittingly or not, Nathan Hindmarsh, the former Parramatta Eels stalwart said that during his career and even now, ASADA had always told the players at the Eels and every NRL club, that if any player tests positive for a banned substance, “you’re gone for two years….saying it was in your mum’s cooking won’t hold up. Every player has the responsibility to know what they’re putting into their body”.
Let’s not forget about Sandor Earl. The former Roosters, Panthers and Raiders star is facing 4 years out of the game and sport at large for virtually the same offence as the Sharks players ‘pleaded’ guilty for, unwittingly taking or being subjected to banned substances on the advice of a sport scientist who was a consultant at the time during his stint at Penrith. The only difference, between the Cronulla player and Earl is that Earl was charged with trafficking the banned substances (by trafficking, it related to Earl transporting the peptides from a clinic to a doctor who administered the substances to what he was led to believe was completely legal to aid in his recovery from shoulder reconstructive surgery) So one individual receives 4 years? Whilst the others receive 3 months? Where is the consistency? The transparency? The fairness?
What’s even more shambolic is that the person who had knowledge and allowed all this to happen, Shane Flanagan, will waltz back into work at Remondis Stadium next month, planning for Season 2015. Flanagan was suspended for a year, which was later reduced to 9 months if he abided by the NRL’s instruction of undertaking specific courses relating to governance. But wait, there’s MORE! This unbelievable move virtually sums up the Cronulla Sharks Football club in a nutshell. The Board and new management of the Sharks club offered Flanagan a brand new 3 year contract extension after he had been found guilty and suspended by the NRL after failing in his duty of care to his players.
No other organisation in not only sport, but any industry, could possibly reward an individual knowing what Flanagan has been found guilty of. In a word, it’s ‘unprofessional’. It seems to be the creed and mantra that the Cronulla-Sutherland District Rugby League Football Club lives by. How Flanagan can hold onto his position without Cronulla, the NRL or even ASADA stepping in and terminating his services has many perplexed and dumbfounded.
We have learnt this week that the Cronulla club is once again now in search of a major sponsor, after ‘Labour Health’ has informed the Sharks it will not be continuing its commercial agreement in the same capacity as it stands at the moment. Not to mention, there is also word that several players are considering suing the Sharks due to the whole supplement saga. Their respective legal representatives deem that they do have a case, and a strong one at that. Throw in the $1 million dollar fine issued by the NRL and it’s own expenses paid for its own internal investigation, the Sharks are on Struggle Street financially.
As much as Sharks officials and its experienced Chief Executive in Steve Noyce want to put all this drama to bed and move forward, moving forward may be more difficult than it seems. Sponsorship will be harder than ever to procure and source amidst the drama and catastrophic damage sustained to its brand name. If Cronulla really do want to move on, move forward then it must start a fresh. Whilst not caught up in a drugs saga, Canterbury-Bansktown Bulldogs and the Melbourne Storm are prime examples of two professional organisations being able to come out stronger when faced with their own separate, individual adversity.
Both the Bulldogs and Storm faced well-documented salary cap breaches in 2002 and 2010 respectively. How did both clubs recover and re-establish their creditability? They took a broom through the joint and rid themselves of the culprits and those responsible. That should always be the first point of call. Before any re-build can truly take place, an organisation or a football club must part ways with the individuals responsible for staining the club, its reputation and image.
The Sharks if they are serious about moving forward as they claim to be, must take multiple leafs out of both Canterbury and Melbourne’s book. And that starts with tearing up Coach Shane Flanagan’s newly inked 3 year deal and helping him pack his bags, so too, the staff that also had knowledge of what transpired in 2011. The former Sharks board stood down former staff of the sharks including football manager, club doctor and the head trainer, only for a new Sharks board to re-instate them. A case of two steps forward, 3 steps back.
Cronulla failed to learn from this instance much to its detriment. It now has the opportunity to make a mends; wipe the slate clean and restore creditability and pride to its name and its 47 year old history. Otherwise, it will only have those responsible for the running of the club namely in its board, chairman and CEO to blame and will suffer the consequences. Those ramifications will be a severe lack of likeability as a brand, resulting in sponsors and companies avoiding the Sharks like the plague, investing their hard earned else where in what already is a saturated Sydney sporting market. A titanic like struggle to not only retain its members, but to attract new members to the club, hence resulting in gate receipts dwindling with crowds attendances shrinking.
So whilst it’s famous club song may echo the phrase “Up, Up Cronulla”, it will never climb to the heights of its competitors from its dark and lonely place of rock bottom until it starts to take itself seriously as an entity. It’s time those who are the current custodians of the Sharks have a long hard look in the corporate, professional, business like mirror and make some hard, tough, necessary decisions for the long term betterment of the boys in the ‘Black, White and Blue’