Australian Rules Football Is Broken

The Australian Football League, one of the most popular sports leagues in the world, was rocked by scandal last week when it came out that its most successful club is apparently pumping players full of performance-enhancing drugs.

Most people in the world don’t care about Australian Rules Football, or even understand its (Australian) rules. But in its homeland, it’s a billion-dollar industry with a century and a half of history. It’s so culturally entrenched that the Australian Football League has the third-highest average attendance of any sports league. The Essendon Bombers are the most successful of the AFL’s 18 clubs and, right now, the focus of a scandal that’s tearing the sport apart.

Here’s what happened: Last week, Essendon got wind that the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency was readying a report that some Bombers were taking performance-enhancing drugs. The club preemptively called a press conference, during which three ashen-faced coaches and CEOs announced, in tones of a CEO telling his daughter that he just ran over her dog, that they were investigating the matter.

Then Kyle Reimers, an ex-Bomber, revealed some more details. According to him, the club would take players away from its official training site, have them sign waivers that stated that they were making the decisions whether to take the drugs themselves, inject them with something that was “very odd” and “right on the edge” of legality.

Even without this controversy, the 2013 off-season has been pretty entertaining: One club cheated the salary cap, the league’s Messi-like, mercurial star seems to be leaving his team, and the Melbourne Demons, who drew up the sport’s 154 years ago, are being investigated for purposely losing games to get better draft picks. But Essendon is the worst rulebreaker of all—the supplement they’re rumored to have given players, TB-500, is supposed to add muscle tone and growth, flexibility, strength, and endurance, as well as prevent injuries. Even if you don't understand Australian Rules Football, you know that all of that will make players better at the sport.

The story is juicy for all kinds of reasons. There’s the link between Essendon’s coach (who is a former Bombers star) and a convicted drug trafficker, and there's the unsavory accusation that some Bombers wanted to get off the supplement program but their bosses wouldn’t let them—and keep in mind that, supposedly, the players had no idea what they were taking. There’s also been a trickle of high-profile ex-footballers admitting to being offered steroids, which implies this is only the tip of the bulging, unnaturally large iceberg.

So far, the Australian media has focused on two alleged banned-substance providers: Stephen “The Pharmacist” Dank and Dean “The Weapon” Robinson. According to what you believe, they’re innocent scapegoats or the architects of an underground railroad of cheaters. Their alleged misdeeds aren’t limited to the AFL, either: According to a former rugby player, Dank injected calf’s blood into him while working for the Manly-Warringah club (it didn’t help with his groin injury). Dank has denied all accusations and is preparing a  $10 million lawsuit against the media outlets dragging his name through the mud.

Who will be punished for what, and how serious the consequences will be, is still up in the air—after all, no one is sure what happened in the first place yet. But administering any supplement via injection is grounds for a two-year suspension in the AFL, and whatever happens, careers and reputations are about to be ruined, maybe on a level comparable to the steroid scandal in baseball, which led to a whole generation of players becoming “tainted” in the minds of many fans and writers. Though it’d be naïve to think any sport is rid of this corruption and cheating, this news is still deflating. As silly as it sounds, Australian sports has always had an implied purity and cleanliness; match-fixing was rare and drug use was limited to partying. One week after the very first revelation that Aussie football players were taking steroids, a lot of that innocence is already lost. Oh yeah, and our soccer matches are getting fixed as well.

Kyle Forward lives in Melbourne, and one of the things he likes is football. Follow him on Tumblr here