James Hird In Conversation Q&A
Former Essendon coach James Hird gave his one and only interview  on the AFL doping scandal to ABC journalist Tracey Holmes. It was broadcast live from The Ethics Centre. After the broadcast, the audience were able to ask their own questions. You can view the Q&A below, or read the transcript.

With the players being unable to contact people such as the Club or for those at the Bulldogs or Port Adelaide, is there a concern as the season moves on how those players can be supported, and the things the AFL and the Clubs can put in place to help them to get through the year?

HIRD: Yeah, I’m not close enough to it anymore to know exactly what those processes are, but I know that the Clubs and the AFL Players Association has processes in place – I just can’t tell you what they are. I think the 34 players and their families will be a source of support for each other as well.

One of the difficulties is that as a player you become very institutionalised in your lifestyle. You get up at seven, you go to the Club, you train, you go home at four. You do that day after day. You’re told what to eat, you’re told what to drink, you’re told where to train, how to sleep … I think that lack of routine will be hard for them to work through.

HOLMES: The structural issue of having a High Performance team over here, independent from the Senior Coach, that doesn’t feel like a system that would go forward.

HIRD: I actually disagree with that. I don’t think a Senior Coach should be responsible for those people at all. My knowledge of medicine and of the medical department is tiny – I’m not a doctor. I’m not trying to absolve myself from what happened, I’m just saying I would never … I wouldn’t think in the future coaches would be in charge of those things at all.

You need experts and you need a Head of Football who is really a “dot I’s and cross the T’s”, process-driven person – whose got some charisma to lead. But the most important job for the coach now in the club is to be so close to his players that they play for him, to set the agenda for the game plan and is to get his coaches coaching the way he wants to. And then he’s the public face.

That’s a big job in terms of time commitment so to look after the nitty-gritty intricacies of, let’s say, the supplement program now… Other coaches would say, they don’t know what their players are given and they actually don’t want to know what their players are given because then that leads to the point where if you do know then you have to go and research it. John Worsfold at Essendon has got no time to go and research the latest supplement. That needs to be done by someone else.

HOLMES: Firstly, did any of the players ever express concern about the program – that’s the first question. And the second question is: with the benefit of hindsight is there something in particular that stands out as where you perhaps could have twigged to something going wrong.

HIRD: I think one of the things I wish I had have done better was … Stephen Dank proved A0964 was the drug or supplement I thought was the big issue. He wasn’t allowed to give that so he went and got the WADA documentation for Bruce Reid to approve and tick it off. And Bruce Reid eventually did approve it and tick it off.

He [Dank] waved a bit of paper under my nose one day and said “oh, I’ve got the approval”. Now I wish, instead of waving it under my nose and saying “oh I saw the WADA approval document”, I wish I’d got that document, looked at it, checked its authenticity … because there is a suggestion that document is not authentic. I think if we’d discovered then that document wasn’t authentic or wasn’t what they thought it was that would have set off a number of alarm bells that would have said “that’s not what we’re doing.”

And I think I would have been stronger in June or July in that meeting with David Evans and Ian Robson and said “Well, if he’s still there, we’re not working”. That’s how strong we had to be. We were very strong but we probably should have said “well if they’re there, we’re not. You make the choice”.

HOLMES: I’m intrigued about the 13 players who didn’t take part. Was there any repercussion from them? First off, do you know why they didn’t take part in the program?

HIRD: With the younger guys, Football Club policy, even when I was there as a younger player – they don’t really want to give you any supplements or medication. They want to let your body adapt and just grow and do it naturally. So there were probably 5 or 6 new guys that didn’t do it.

Jason Winderlich had a phobia for needles, so did David Zaharakis, and some of the guys just didn’t like taking supplements. I mean, whether supplements are taken orally or it’s an injection – if they’re taken either way – some people just want to eat naturally, so it was a choice and that was the choice they made.

HOLMES: Given that it’s known Melbourne had basically the same program with the same staff and that 12 other Clubs have very similar programs. How do you cope – especially given you say you were silenced for effectively three years – with the constant suggestion that it was only you and it was only Essendon who had this program. And this was only revealed on Tuesday night by Caroline Wilson. 

HIRD: It’s disappointing and it’s not right, but I think we have to own our responsibility. I mean the program that we ran led to what happened. So it’s very disappointing and as I say it’s not right but you can only know what’s going on in your backyard and take responsibility and that’s what we need to do.

HOLMES: Do you think the WADA code is appropriate for a team sport such as the AFL?

HIRD: The WADA code is very big and very broad so there’s elements of it that are right. You’ve got certain drugs or certain supplements that shouldn’t be taken so that part of it’s right. But there are elements of it that aren’t right. I’m probably not the right person to ask, to be honest, because I haven’t read the WADA code in detail.

I don’t know what the alternative is, but it would seem that this sanction… Firstly the evidence and the way it was put together is wrong and it shouldn’t have happened the way it did. And secondly the fact the players are all … that “no significant fault” was given is just ridiculous. I mean, what more could they do?

They were told by Stephen Dank that everything was compliant, and they were told they were being given Thymomodulin. Now, Thymomodulin is something you’re allowed to take, so every time they get Thymomodulin should they be testing it in a laboratory? I think that’s the ridiculous nature of this decision. Let’s say they were duped – what more could they have done?

HOLMES: I was fascinated to hear the twenty minute discussion about peptides and when you were called in to talk about that. Do you think – and I don’t know if this is true or not – that you saw legal supplements and the peptides and things like that as maybe a future way to gain an advantage? And if that is true, do you think that might have, when these kind of concerns were surfacing and things like that, that maybe made you want to keep going with them and keep that very legal competitive edge. Were they something that you were fascinated by or really wanted to explore as a legal way to…

HIRD: I wasn’t fascinated by them but I was certainly of the mind that if there were a legal advantage, whether that be supplementation, whether that be a training method, whether that be a game plan then that’s fine, but it had to be within the rules.

I was very clear what those rules were and at no time did I ever want to go outside the rules. Peptides weren’t necessarily to panacea or the greatest thing that was going to help us, it was just one of many things that we looked at as a club.

HOLMES: In your first press conference you used the words “I take full responsibility”. I’m just interested in why you’ve been reluctant to use those same words since that time.

HIRD: Well, because I was told to say those words. That might be a copout but I was told to say those words by the PR person at the time. And I think when I look back that I don’t think it’s fair for me to take full responsibility.

I think if you’re expecting the head coach to take full responsibility and you’re saying he’s the head of the tree and he’s running the Football Club … at no stage was I the head of the tree or running the Football Club. I was second in line to run the Football Club and the responsibility around giving players supplements was not my responsibility.

Now I accept that as a leader in the club that doesn’t absolve me of responsibility, but it doesn’t lead to full responsibility either.

HOLMES: Are you seeking answers on behalf of players from Stephen Dank? 

HIRD: I think we’ve long since tried to seek answers from Stephen Dank. We’d love him to give answers but he hides behind something every time. He promises to show things and they just don’t turn up.

HOLMES: What was your last conversation with Stephen Dank? 

HIRD: I can’t remember, it was in August 2012. I’m not sure. I didn’t walk down and say “you’re sacked”…

HOLMES: Have you contacted him since then?

HIRD: No.

HOLMES: In reference to Thymodulin, why weren’t they disclosed to the ASADA testers? Was there a directive from the Club to not disclose that information?

HIRD: There was no directive from the Club and I think that was a mistake by some of the players, but if you read the CAS report it says that 34 players didn’t disclose. Well, 34 players weren’t tested in that year. Only 21 of the players were tested so there’s 13 who weren’t tested.

Another five or six – I don’t know the exact numbers – who weren’t tested at the time when they were taking Thymomodulin. I think the form asks for a certain amount of time and what have you taken. There were others who were in a hurry and didn’t always put down what they were taking… you come off the track, you’ve got to give your urine sample, you’ve got to get to a meeting so you just put down a few things. It’s definitely a mistake but to say it was sinister or deliberate I think is a step too far.

HOLMES: With Dank, you had text messages and stuff. Can you elaborate on all them?

HIRD: Yeah sure. There were 7,000 text messages between myself and the football department in the time we’re talking about. Around about 100 of those were between Stephen Dank and myself. 75% were from him – I didn’t always respond to his text messages – not one of those text messages talked about performance enhancing drugs, illegal activity…

Yes, there was some supplement talk on those text messages but it was never about cheating the system. If you read those text messages and you go through them … that’s running a department. That’s part of running a department, not trying to cheat the system.

You can present information in a way you want to present it, or you can look at it as a whole. I think a lot of those instances are presented as a small part without the context.

HOLMES: So you guys weren’t convoluting to devise this toxic culture so to speak?

HIRD: If you read the text messages I can’t see how you could say that.

HOLMES: James, I’m confused where Essendon fit into this because there’s been a lot directed at the AFL and other parties but Essendon are the ones who set up the structure with not you looking after all the medical side of it, they’ve asked you to take full responsibility … You’ve remained loyal to them. Nothing’s really come out the fact that other people ran the Football Club, that the program was run through another channel through the CEO. I don’t understand why your loyalty remained with Essendon given they’ve set you up to this position based on what you’ve said tonight.

HIRD: I don’t think they’ve set me up to this position. I can only say – and it has been said on a number of occasions – that what gets published get published. A neutral story is very rarely published in a newspaper or talked about. It’s either one side or the other, and people talk about it as either one side or the other. It’s not neutral. There’s probably only a handful of journalists who take a neutral position.

The fact is, I made mistakes, the club made mistakes, we set the ball rolling, but we didn’t keep pushing it down the hill. It had a lot of hands.

HOLMES: Why did you remain so loyal to the club and not told your story until now when their part was to walk you down a path – someone asked a question about whistleblowing before – for you to stand up and say “Hang on, we wanted this guy out. We even wanted him of the club but financials took priority over player welfare…”. You could draw that inference. It just appears that there were opportunities for you to come out before this.

HIRD: I suppose I have the view that I still, up until a couple of months before I resigned, I thought we could work through this as a Club and we could tell our story at the end and that the players would get off. The most important thing in this is not me coming out and defending myself, that’s what I believe.

The most important thing in this is trying to get the players found not guilty, get them back playing football and give them their lives back. A career goes for seven to ten years. Three years were destroyed. Now it’s a fourth year. So that was my priority, knowing there’d be a time I’d get a chance to tell my story.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to tell my story when Armageddon’s hit and the players are in a terrible position. But I do have loyalty to the club, it’s been my life – it’s my grandfather’s life, it’s my father’s life, it’s my life. So that might be blind loyalty, it may be that people see it as silly but I genuinely love the Essendon Football Club and the reason I took that deal in 2013 was because I thought it was the best thing to enable the club to move on.

HOLMES: Paul Hamilton hasn’t been mentioned much at all. With Dank reporting through to him, what insights has he given you and how much awareness did he have of that?

HIRD: I haven’t spoken to Paul since he left the club in 2012.

HOLMES: What role do you think the media has played in this – clearly a witch hunt – and what do you think they can learn from the process that’s happened and the effect on the players’ welfare?

HIRD: I don’t think the media will learn much out of this. The media are the media and they’ll report what information they’re given and they’ll twist it … well, not twist it but they’ll present it in the fashion that they think will best serve their media outlet. The media’s role is yes, to be truthful and be correct, but the media’s role I think is also – they think – to sell a story.

I think that people who were giving that information and leaking that information and corrupting the integrity of the investigation, they’re the ones who have to learn something. And if you’re the AFL, you would have to sit back in my opinion and say “we did not handle this in the best possible fashion”.

HOLMES: Do you think that if this hadn’t happened to Essendon – Stephen Dank and all this kind of thing – that it was inevitable that it would have happened at some stage to someone, and do you think the AFL were negligent in not mitigating that risk? 

HIRD: The AFL undertook blood tests on the Essendon players in 2012 and sent them to Cologne because they had a suspicion that something was going on at Essendon that wasn’t right. We didn’t know that, they didn’t tell us this and we wish that they had told us. Those blood tests came back negative and so the players didn’t test positive for anything. At that stage if the AFL had of said “right-oh, there’s an issue here”, come and seen the club, I think it’d be a different story.

If Stephen Dank had gone somewhere else would this have happened somewhere else? Maybe. But this is just the worst possible situation of everything happening the wrong way.

From the Essendon Football Club not doing the right thing, or having not the right protocols for something happening that shouldn’t have happened through to manipulation at the highest levels of Government, manipulation with ASADA, manipulation with the AFL to get an outcome. Everything went wrong. I don’t think anything could ever go that wrong ever again. I hope not.

In fact that press conference should probably never have happened because ASADA hadn’t even done their investigating yet. Why would you stand up and announce to the world that you’ve got this massive investigation that hasn’t been done? You don’t know what you’re going to find yet. They may have found more, they may have found less, but it was a terrible way to flag the whole start of it.

To watch the full interview, click here

Join the conversation

Are we to blame for our politicians?