Ten years ago, Melbourne “won” their second consecutive wooden spoon and were on their knees. But there was more to the story that stretched from inside Demonland to AFL headquarters. This is the tale of how the game’s greatest cover-up came to pass.
The Tale of the Tank (Part Two)
“Unprecedented sanctions and accountabilities taken,” AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan told 3AW last week that “they were strong sanctions (against Melbourne).”
On the surface this deflection may ring true. But let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
Chris Connolly, who was Melbourne’s football manager for the infamous 2008 and 2009 seasons, after unsuccessfully applying for the role of senior coach, was banned for a year. However, by the time this was handed down in 2013, Connolly was no longer in Melbourne’s football department. He had a marketing role. Yet, he was still paid by Melbourne during his suspension. Connolly’s sanction has a year off with pay. How brutal?
Dean Bailey was actually severely punished with a sixteen-game ban. Although, this did not exactly effect Melbourne considering he was an assistant coach at Adelaide at the time. It was certainly a tough sanction for Adelaide, who had nothing to do with Melbourne’s appalling actions.
Ok so, the Demons have not exactly been savaged with sanctions so far. And the penalties given to both individuals fell well short of then AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou’s vow to ban anyone involved in tanking from the game for life. "He would never work in football again. There would be an investigation into the club and there would be severe sanctions”, Demetriou told 3AW in 2011.
But that brings us to the centerpiece of the AFL’s penalties. A $500,000 fine against the club, which was the third biggest in history at the time.
How on earth did a club, on its knees, survive this?
Perhaps because the AFL gave Melbourne a whopping $2.7 million in handouts, later that very same year in 2013!
Therefore, Melbourne’s supposed “strong sanctions” include one less marketing person and only receiving $2.2 million extra from the AFL. Oh, the humanity.
Not only that, but the club’s reputation remained in tact (at least officially) because they were spared a guilty verdict. Unprecedented accountabilities taken, Gil reckons? Spare us.
Now let’s get to the bottom of why, the AFL cleared Melbourne from tanking. Well, the official reason.
McLachlan’s main tactic when defending the AFL’s decision to find Melbourne not guilty of tanking (and all associated charges such as match-fixing and draft tampering), is to lift the bar so high that it cannot be cleared. We have already mentioned that McLachlan’s definition of tanking ranges from flexible to completely non-existent. McLachlan during his blunder-filled interview on 3AW last week claimed that there “clearly [was] not” any reports of “match-day interference,” implying that no tanking charges can therefore be sustained.
The problem for McLachlan here though, is that this is utterly false. There were reports of match-day interference as then coach Dean Bailey revealed to investigators that players were taken off the ground and not let back on under the false proviso that they were injured. As high as McLachlan attempts to raise the bar, Melbourne’s tanking was so blatant that they continue to jump it. However, you’d think after ten years, someone from the AFL could brainstorm an excuse that is vaguely accurate.
To be fair to McLachlan, he said in the interview that, “I haven’t read the transcripts.”
Now, this is slightly concerning since he oversaw the investigation.
Thus, the AFL’s official reason for clearing Melbourne is completely off the mark and that was known to them at the time. That is, if someone involved in the investigation bothered to actually read the transcripts. Although, actual evidence did not seem that relevant to the AFL’s workshopping of a sanction that best suited them, so perhaps the transcripts were not that important.
Nevertheless, for years when questioned, the AFL would stand behind the notion that there was no tanking “on match day.” Perhaps, McLachlan’s mistake was that he was still reading from the AFL’s coverup play book that had not been updated since the transcripts became publicly available by the brilliant journalism of the Herald Sun’s Michael Warner.
So, what is the real reason that the AFL did not find Melbourne guilty?
One significant reason, as highlighted by The Age’s Jake Niall, is that Melbourne were prepared to fight the AFL legally if any tanking charge was sustained. The AFL may well have been worried how they could defend something that was only a crime in AFL land and was effectively encouraged under its own draft rules.
Another important point to mention, was that Melbourne was on life-support and staring down the barrel of oblivion. A guilty verdict would have undoubtedly had to include heavy and proper sanctions including the removal of draft picks. The AFL were concerned that such penalties would have killed the game’s oldest club off.
But the reasons behind this decision were not just out of empathy, there were also political manoeuvres at play. You can bet on that.
In 2009, eyebrows were raised as a coach gave more than a wink and a nod while he was shown the door. Yet the AFL said it was satisfied there was no tanking in footy – not even at Melbourne. However, people outside of the realms of AFL House were far from satisfied. Media commentators knew. So, did the fans. Including those whose broken hearts still beat true for the red and the blue.
But a more important stakeholder was becoming edgy. In 2009, the Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation began seeking assurances from the AFL that tanking was not taking place. The government was not left convinced after the AFL’s first correspondence. But eventually the AFL was able to successfully reassure them that it had the appropriate measures in place to protect the integrity of their games. Crisis avoided.
Clearly, the AFL could not afford to put at risk the significant revenue they glean from their relationship with betting partners. This tanking business could cause all sorts of problems that would be disastrous for the AFL. Let alone, if someone starts seeing a connection between “tanking” and “match-fixing.” So, when Brock McLean forced the AFL’s hand after an explosive interview on On The Couch, the AFL was stuck between a rock and a hard place and had to get creative. There was no room for integrity.
The Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation was slow to be satisfied there was no tanking in the AFL back in 2009. Therefore, they were hardly going to accept a “guilty” verdict being attached to one of its clubs that the AFL assured them was not tanking.
Whether Melbourne tanked or didn’t (spoiler alert: they did) was hardly on top of the AFL’s priorities list as it slowly shifted through a minefield to reach its absurd half-way agreement. The AFL was more concerned about keeping the peace with betting agencies, ensuring the Melbourne Football Club did not go under and saving itself from a potential court battle.
It absolutely was in its best interests to find the Demons not guilty of tanking. So, that was exactly what it did. They were happy, Melbourne was happy, the gambling regulators were happy. Everybody was happy.
Former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou was saved the embarrassment of admitting tanking actually exists. He was happy. Then-deputy Gillon McLachlan had an opportunity to take one for the team and be the lone hand representing the AFL at a tough press-conference. He was happy when he was appointed to the main chair next year. Smiles all round.
But best of all, the AFL did not even have to release the evidences and the transcripts. Everyone was a winner.
Except Dean Bailey, who had his reputation tarnished by a penalty he only received for being a reluctant participant, as opposed to a key driver of the foolish tanking conspiracy. Was it also fair on the dozens of Melbourne footballers who had their development exploited and some their careers destroyed? How about the Melbourne supporters and paid up members who believed the lies of fake injuries and manipulated rotations, didn’t they deserve better?
All AFL fans certainly deserved better than a decade of deceit by the league over this sorry saga; a saga in which integrity was hurled into the back seat if not totally thrown out the window, and showed the AFL could no longer by trusted to govern itself.
Unfortunately, the tanking verdict sparked the beginning of a disturbing trend at league headquarters in the McLachlan era. A trend pertaining to decisions and penalties being handed down on the basis of negotiation and convenience rather than by rules and fairness.
This has held true in the AFL’s trade ban against Sydney after their entirely legal recruitment of Lance Franklin. The AFL reportedly told the Swans it would be “embarrassing” for them if they signed another big name such as Paddy Ryder. Sound fair?
It is also exemplified by the AFL’s illicit drugs policy façade. And I suspect more parts will be needed to fully explore The Tale of the Dank.
The core problem is nothing is stopping the AFL from simply doing as it pleases to suit itself.
The implementation of the new anti-corruption commission, Sports Integrity Australia - needs to change this. Accountability is required.
But for some, it is too late. For them, The Tale of the Tank has already been written.
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