He’s been likened to James Brown, “who used to preach about the evils of drugs then ended up taking loads of them himself”.
He’s been accused of vanity, arrogance and “blind pride”, of failing in his duty of care to the players in his charge at Essendon and selfishly putting his own interests ahead of the team’s.
He was suspended from coaching for a year by the AFL for “bringing the game into disrepute”. Over and over again, pundits have pontificated that he “must step down” or “be moved on”.
His rejection of their verdict and his protestations of innocence were then seen to mean that he’s “in denial” about his crimes. To top it all off, he’s shown that he’s unable to keep his lawyer wife “on the leash”.
What is it about James Hird that annoys so many people?
He’s always seemed such a clean-living, upstanding fellow. And as a footballer, he was indisputably a champion. A classical fairest and best type.
I remember the first time I ever saw him play. He had his back to me, simply watching as a pack built around the ball, waiting for his moment. And when it came, I’ll swear he was in slow motion as he burrowed his way into the scrimmage, everyone else frozen in the fray. Seconds later, he emerged with the ball and hand-passed it off to a teammate yards away, in the open. It was like a superbly choreographed dance. He knew exactly what he was going to do and he did it.
Hird had that indefinable quality shared by all the great players of Australian Rules: Baldock, Jesaulenko, Matthews, Buckley, Jack Clarke, Voss, Flower and, I’m assured, many others I never saw in action. They knew how to read the play, I mean really read the play, and Hird did too.
Yet supporters from opposing clubs often took a disliking to him. Perhaps it was simply that he always made it hard for their players, the ball so often finishing up in his hands rather than theirs. Perhaps it was the blond hair that might get a bit tousled during the game but always made him stand out. The “coif”, as a sports-lawyer-columnist-wannabe recently hissed.
Perhaps it was Hird’s feminine quality that annoyed some football people, men and women alike: this blond was never interested in being brawny, in being a tough guy. Yes, he stood up to be counted when it mattered, but you’d never see him delivering a carefully-calibrated shirtfront, or niggling someone behind the play, or mouthing off at them about their mother last night. He’s always seemed above all that, and fair-dinkum Aussie folks sometimes reckon blokes like that are being condescending. Gentleman blonds aren’t always preferred.
I don’t know him or what he’s like in his private life, but I’ve always believed that you can tell what a person is really like by the way he or she competes at sport. If that’s true, Hird is both a team player and an individual capable of rising above the pack.
A corollary of that has been that there’ll be those who want him brought down, or who’ll try to bring him down. I recall, long before the current scandal, a journalist colleague – female, a St Kilda supporter – confiding in me that she really hated James Hird. She meant it in a footy-fan kind of way; it was nothing really personal. When I asked her why, I recall her exact words: “He’s too perfect.” To which, I replied: “Have you not seen his ears?”
In recent times, though, dating back to just before he was appointed coach at Essendon, the hostility has become very personal. It began when the rumours started to fly that he was positioning himself for the posting. He refused to confirm the reports, but his subsequent signature on the dotted line was tantamount to turning himself into a target.
Since then, the kitchen has become increasingly hot and Hird has, characteristically, refused to leave it. The supplements saga at Essendon has taken its toll. A nightmare lasting more than 18 months, so far, it has kept the headlines coming but provided little insight into what anybody allegedly did to anybody else; or what anybody knew about what they were doing, if and when they did it; or should have known.
ASADA’s “show-cause” notices last week don’t appear to have clarified anything and the only solid evidence we’ve seen (via the recent Federal Court testimonies) has to do with how the investigation of Essendon was conducted by ASADA and what the AFL was prepared to do to protect its “brand”.
There’s been lots of surmising, lots of accusations directed at Essendon and Hird, lots of news breaks (several subsequently shown to be false), lots of misrepresentations of news events, lots of editorialising, lots of angry readers’ letters. Most offer opinions that are as worthless as they are righteous because they’re based on an assumption of a guilt that remains to be proven.
There is no question that Hird has been singled out in all of this, by the AFL, by the media and by the court of popular opinion (all inextricably and dismayingly linked). His reply has been to play tough and refuse to be bullied.
He testified in the Federal Court that he allowed himself to be persuaded to compromise his beliefs during the early part of the so-called supplements saga, making choices that led Julian Burnside, one of his lawyers, to describe him as “heroic”.
Like the recruit playing his first season, he took time to adjust to the pace at which the game was being conducted and to learn how to read the play. That’s no longer the case.
His critics may eventually have to eat their words and some sizeable slices of humble pie. Or they may not. My view is that, at this stage, it’s them who are in denial. They’ve smelled some smoke in the wind, but, until they or others are able to attach it to some fire, maybe a little caution might be prudent.
I can’t recall anyone in Australia ever being as savagely vilified by the media and its consumers as Hird has been, aside perhaps from Lindy Chamberlain.
And we all know how that story turned out.
Tom Ryan is the editor of ‘Baz Luhrmann’, a book of interviews with the filmmaker to be published by the University Press of Mississippi next month.