James Hird has admitted he made mistakes throughout the Essendon drug scandal, but said he always acted with the players’ best interests at heart.
The Bombers’ former senior coach was conducting his first interview since the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Authority against an AFL tribunal decision to clear the players of taking the banned substance thymosin-beta 4.
The ‘Essendon 34’ – including 12 current players – were suspended from the sport for 12 months.
Speaking at the Sydney Ethics Centre in an exclusive interview with ABC journalist Tracey Holmes, Hird said there was never any intention to cheat the system, and admitted he should have done more to prevent the situation.
“Firstly, I didn’t oversee the program,” Hird said.
“There was no experimental program that went on.
“There was no intention by anyone, (sports scientist) Stephen Dank included, to cheat the system.
“(But) at certain times I believe protocols weren’t adhered to.
“I have a level of responsibility in that. I should have known more. I should have done more when the opportunity came.
“I feel extremely guilty for that and bad for that. I can only apologise for that. I made decisions in real time that in hindsight, I think were wrong.”
Hird coached Essendon from 2010 until he stood down from his position late in the 2015 season, with much of his reign dogged by speculation, investigations and court cases.
He said he had spoken to around half of the suspended players, and said skipper Jobe Watson probably felt let down by his former coach,
“Certainly, some of them you want to give some space to,” Hird said.
“Jobe’s rightly very angry and I think he feels very let down in a number of areas.
“I think he’s got every right to feel let down by myself.”
Hird said part of the blame should be shared by club doctor Bruce Reid, who he said approved supplements for use, because he had a better understanding of the supplements and their effects than other members of the club’s hierarchy.
Dr Reid remains at the club.
“We all should have done more and Bruce would admit he should have done more as well,” Hird said.
When asked at what point he thought Dr Reid should have taken more responsibility, Hird said: “I don’t think Bruce should have to leave the Essendon Football Club.
“Bruce’s primary concern at all times is the welfare of players. Bruce is a very, very good man. I think he has paid a price – not the price that the players have paid – the players have paid the ultimate price for this and their careers, a lot of them, are either ruined or they have gone back a long way.
“I don’t know whether Bruce has taken enough responsibility or not. That is something you will have to ask Bruce but I do know that he has worn a lot of criticism for this.”
‘I was the scalp’
Hird said AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan told him he was to be made a scapegoat for the scandal.
“I was told I was going to be the ‘scalp’,” he said.
“I was then told by Gillon McLachlan that this is about the optics.
“How would it look if the highest profile person at the Essendon Football club escaped sanction?”
Hird said it was impossible to judge just how culpable he was for the scandal.
“I certainly made some errors of judgement. I trusted people.
“It’s hard to give you what my level of responsibility is.
“I had a big impact on that football club.
“I do believe at all times I tried to make the best decisions for the players.”
Only Dank knows
Hird says the fact his players will be remembered as drug cheats will haunt him for a long time.
“Stephen Dank can say for certain what they were injected with. But if that is the case, if no one can say for certain what they were injected with, how can 34 men be found guilty by CAS?” he said.
“I can understand people saying that the club can’t say what they were injected with. But CAS cannot say what they were injected with. You are asking the players to prove their innocence.
“What will haunt me is that the players are put in a position where they are seen as drug cheats. I don’t want history to see those players as drug cheats. That is what will haunt me.”
While the saga has affected his family and personal life, Hird says his feelings remain with his players.
“My children have lived it, my oldest daughter is 16. She has seen it. My youngest son is six. It has been a huge part of his life,” he said.
“As I said, that victim role for us, it has to be about the players. We can sit back with my friends and my family and talk about it in private but I think that the real impact is on 34 players.
“They are sitting there going ‘What have I done? I have done nothing wrong, why am I in this position?’
“I still to this date don’t believe that anything banned was given to our players.”
– with ABC/AAP