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Soup of This Day #391: Is The Nature Of My Game

August 28, 2014

Howard Hawks and Lauren Bacall
Director Howard Hawks with actress Lauren Bacall. Bacall would go on to feature as the female lead in Hawks’ 1946 film adaptation of author Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The plot for that movie baffles many, yet it is much beloved, often by those it has confused the most (incl. me). Film critic Roger Ebert has suggested that this is:

‘…because the movie is about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.’

I reckon Rog might be right – Photo: Los Angeles Daily News, 1943. The Los Angeles Daily News is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

For today’s post I’d like to start with a visit to a court.

Because this is a sports blog that kind of declaration would normally lead into some basketball or tennis, or maybe even squash. Although that latter game seems strange to me – It’s a mystery to me why the ball doesn’t bounce like it means it..

Although, it’s not a complicated or engrossing mystery, with a bunch of plot devices driving the intrigue. Trying to work out why a squash ball dies on the rebound is not like understanding the narrative of Howard Hawks’ 1946 film noir masterpiece, The Big Sleep.

Fortunately, for this post, we’re not wholly focussed on why squash balls don’t bounce regular. I’m not saying that a squash ball isn’t going to ironically bounce on up later in this post, but I can say that we’re not on a squash court. We’re not talking basketball or tennis either. There is a mystery though and it’s got a story underpinning it that is worthy of a movie like The Big Sleep.

Mostly because that latter flick has at it’s core a series of crimes which may not have been crimes and which may not have even occurred. That’s similar to what we’re talking about on court today.

Or in court, to be exact.

Yep, we’re going to a court of law – the Australian High Court. This is because that august institution has recently featured two matters bound up in one saga – Essendon Football Club vs ASADA and James Hird vs ASADA. Together, these cases are a part of what is popularly known as the Essendon Football Club supplements controversy.

There’s often popularly some cuss-words in there as well – Both from those bound in allegiance to any of the involved parties, as well as from those football neutrals who just care about the game.

You can’t separate out the football from the @#$%ing controversy. Not with a club like Essendon FC so involved.

Essendon FC, otherwise known as the Bombers or the Dons, are a long-standing member of the Australian rules football elite. The Melbourne-based club was formed in the 1870’s and has won a record-equalling 16 premierships in either the Victorian Football League (VFL) or the subsequent Australian Football League (AFL).

James Hird is a Bombers legend. He played for them from 1992 until 2007, amassing 253 games, two premiership flags, a Brownlow medal and a Norm Smith medal. Which are wonderful numbers but Hird is worth more than that to Essendon FC – When his silky skills had left the playing arena he kept himself involved in the game, and when he took up a head coaching spot in 2011 it was never going to be with anyone but the Dons.

The final player in this controversy is ASADA, the Australian Sports Anti Doping Agency. They are a government-funded body tasked with ensuring that performance enhancing drugs do not tarnish the gloriously fair and fairly glorious world of Australian sport.

In 2013 all three of these parties collided, embraced and possibly sat in each other’s laps while standing up.

Ok so that last bit is a line from The Big Sleep and probably not literally correct for this supplements drama. It is a useful metaphor though because each of the parties seems to believe that they got worked over in the encounter.

Simply, ASADA alleged that, across the 2011 and 2012 AFL seasons, while James Hird was the head coach, someone at Essendon FC authorised and administered supplements to the players for the purposes of enhancing their performance and/or reducing wrinkles. These supplements were comprised of peptides, a type of biological molecule. Peptides can apparently be very useful in medicine – They may be used to generate antibodies, thus aiding in the fight against diseases, most notably cancer.

It’s not all upside though. A lot of this peptide stuff is still experimental and in the case of sports medicine, not wholly legal or sound. Providing peptides for an athlete is either hanging around the ethical and moral crossroads, or it’s leaving the ethical and moral crossroads, clutching a signed deal with the Devil.

Most of us have no sympathy for the Devil and so would not be lingering at those crossroads. Essendon FC though are a professional sporting club in a very competitive market. I’m guessing that it’s pretty tempting for such an outfit to think that they can ink a deal with the Devil and yet still retain their good souls. Sure there’s risk in that, but the rewards garnered from pulling one over the horned beastie are substantial. Maybe that’s a brave challenge, perhaps even a noble one. Regardless, it is a challenge that Bombers seem to have taken up.

I should try to be unclear here though – This is all conjecture.

I’m not alone in writing that – There has been a lot of conjecture around this matter. So much conjecture that it’s hard to find anybody associated with the game who hasn’t conjected their little hearts out and generally, doing so without adding any clarity to the situation.

These court hearings don’t look like they’re aiming to fix that.

This is largely because, as far as I can tell, these court cases aren’t about whether Essendon FC or James Hird did anything wrong. They are instead about whether ASADA conducted their investigation of Essendon FC and their head football guy, James Hird, in a fair and proper manner.

Yep, just like for Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, this show isn’t about the results of the investigation, it’s about the process of the investigation. Which is an ok approach to take because the plot for the supplement controversy, like for the movie, is convoluted.

None of the protagonists seem to be able to offer clarity either. James Hird is the exemplar of this – He’s become a sort of human MacGuffin – The Sean Regan in this football adaptation of The Big Sleep. Regan is a key to the plot of the movie, yet he is never seen and his fate is only implied at. In a similar way, James Hird has been in exile (France) the past 12 or so months and in his absence his name became just another plot device.

So it’s difficult to work out what is going on. Furthermore, when I tried to use this court business to get some insight in to what is going on, I was put off by the sight of Essendon’s key management personnel trooping to court in Essendon FC ties.

Footy club ties are an apparel oxymoron. They say that the wearer is serious enough to be wearing a tie, but not really. The Dons’ are particularly confusing in that they are striped red and black, screaming danger and not in a cool, Philip Marlowe kind of way. More in an Eddie Mars kind of way.

In The Big Sleep, Eddie Mars gets taken out by his own team, with everyone having been out-played by Philip Marlowe. I would not be surprised if that happened to just about anyone at the Bombers, albeit without the use of deadly force or Philip Marlowe.

Nobody in this @#$%ing Essendon Football Club supplements controversy is Humphrey Bogart’s supremely cool Philip Marlowe. Or Lauren Bacall’s deeply sexy Vivian Rutledge. Both of those characters come out ok in the film. By contrast, it’s difficult to see anybody coming out of the supplements controversy ok. Surely not even the Don’s golden boy James Hird can pull that act off.

He’ll try though – Hird returned from his 12-month suspension just this week, seemingly slotting seamlessly back into the Bombers coaching set-up, planning for a 2015 campaign, alongside his temporary 2014 replacement, Mark Thompson.

That sense of a smooth return, with the events of the past consigned to the cutting room floor, doesn’t bounce though. It in fact bounces less than a squash ball, which as we’ve discussed, doesn’t bounce much at all.

For the squash ball this is by design. It’s a test of skill. The higher the level of squash being played, the less the ball will bounce, forcing the better players to conjure up magic via the way that they play, rather than expecting the ball to do the work for them.

A squash ball, like the fate of Sean Regan or the question of whether ASADA investigated the right way, is mostly irrelevant to the conclusion of the story. What matters instead is whether the game is played with a true hand.

I think James Hird holds the next serve…

Is The Nature Of My Game

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