Lifelong Bombers fan Mena Soliman describes his feelings after the CAS’ Essendon doping ruling broke what was left of his fragile heart.
There’s an adage in football (okay, every sport) that says you win some and you lose some. One week you can kick away by ten goals, break some kind of crowd record and hit the top of the ladder in the same breath. Other weeks you lose your captain to an ACL tear in the first quarter, then spend the next 100 minutes trying to keep your pants up long enough to minimise the repeated spanking.
And yet, even with such explicit shame and defeat, the masses (myself included) come back in droves seven days later, just hoping things will pan out differently this time around. Why? Sport isn’t just about athletic skill, tactics and formidable aerobic capacity. Sport is a story, a production, a narrative built over the weeks of a season and the decades of a lifetime. No matter how big a loss, or how dubious a call – there’s always next week.
But this week marks the week where my steadfast love of AFL nearly came to an end.
Dominating the airwaves is the dreadful outcome 1,071 days in the making. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (all the way in Switzerland, so you know it’s serious) ruled that 34 past and present players of the Essendon Football Club were guilty of doping. They were slapped with two-year bans; with some concessions and back-dating, at the bare minimum ruling them out for the entirety of the 2016 season.
Now, these aren’t rookies or second-string fringe players nobody is going to miss – these are some of the league’s best. Jobe Watson is a Captain and Brownlow Medallist. (He’s about to lose that distinction.) Several others were selected in the prestigious All-Australian side. Paddy Ryder, now at Port Adelaide, was a multi-million dollar free agent who scored a five-year contract to leave the Bombers. Jake Carlisle was the centrepiece of a high-profile first-round draft pick trade – even he, at his new home in St Kilda, is banned.
The devastation for these players is as fierce as it is complete.
It’s not just 2016 that’s over for them; some commentators are suggesting careers will end, their last games already played.
I won’t get into the nitty gritty of this case, the ups and downs we all went through over the last three or so years. I won’t pull up all the problem areas in the investigation or the handling of the evidence. I’m fresh off watching Making A Murderer and I’m all detective’d out.
But I’ll tell you this.
Today I got a lot of attention from my (so-called) friends, most of them turning their gaze to me to gauge my feelings over my beloved Bombers being grounded. My guess is they were sizing me up, trying to see just how irrational my defence would be in the face of such an overwhelming verdict. But I had no defence. In fact, I resigned to it. I now wear the face of desolation.
This is a club I’ve loved, lived and breathed, every day of my living memory. This is the club whose colours spike my heart rate when its players take the field. Essendon is not just a team I barrack for, but part of who I am. Essendon is my family. And if the team represents my family, AFL is my home.
The decision does more than just crush my hopes about the upcoming season. After nearly four years of irreparable damage to the reputation of players, club and code, it has deflated the football inside. The news from the Court of Arbitration for Sport is now history, in the literal sense – nothing like this has ever happened in Australian sport. No team would want this in their history books, particularly not a club with a proud 140-year history. A friend of mine said it best: “There’s going to be a lot of unwanted asterisks next to names because of this.”
I was asked several times if I thought the Bombers should appeal, or if there was a chance they could somehow crawl away from this train wreck with limbs intact.
At this point, would it matter?
The hammer has come down, the damage done. Winning an appeal from here would be as useful as finding a virginal piece of white bread in the charred remains of a house fire. Well done, but goddammit, shame that we have nowhere left to eat it.
Some players will retire, some will return. Some will sue for losses, others will go underground. The news cycle will eventually roll to some other saga, and in time (maybe even a decade from now), this club will again compete for glory.
But for now, I fear the memory of this debacle. It will be a scarlet letter, the smell of wood smoke on camp clothes, the crack in the footpath left by an earthquake. I feel it will always stick, and for the rest of my life, I’ll be that guy who supports a club of “drug cheats.” I don’t want to have to explain that to my kids.
But then I stop to think of the impossible alternative: picking another team. Or quitting altogether. Well, let me tell you, she broke my heart.
Even now, at the numbest of points, I will say this. If this was my wife who done gone cheated on me, I would sooner choose a life of celibacy than find a new one. If I loved her enough, as I do, we’d wade through the bitter emotional detritus, and maybe one day I’d welcome her back home – along with the jagged pieces of my heart she so inconsiderately shattered. She’ll be back, yes, but it’ll never be what it was.
So for the Bombers, for footy, today marks ground zero. The point of most pain. The first day of whatever this is. From here on it’s the forging of forgiveness and the long path to reconciliation.