On Sunday night, James Hird played the same tune he's been playing for three years now. He made like his main concern was the reputation of others. But, if you listened hard, it sounded like his real concern was protecting the good name of just one person: James Hird.
James Hird, the coach who helped instigate the infamous 2012 Essendon supplements program, has had his slick, well-tuned, public relations machine in overdrive this past week.
First came two newspaper columns, both timed and toned for maximum exposure and sympathy.
Then came Sunday night's Q & A with Tracey Homes at an ethics centre. Yes, at an ethics centre. The very fact Hird would choose to put forward his case at an "ethics centre" says much about the way he expertly crafts his image. He wanted Australia to see his face, smooth-shaven, straight-talking, expertly staring down the barrel of the camera, and have the whole performance associated with a grown-up word like "ethics".
He is the master image crafter. How many times have we seen him interviewed out the front of his Toorak mansion with its tasteful plantation shutters? The setting oozes success, intelligence, confidence. His body language adds to the picture. It is not easy to crack James Hird, and that's the way James Hird likes it.
Having said that, experienced journalist Tracey Holmes did a great job of grilling Hird on his central role in the greatest sports scandal in the history of Australian mainstream sport.
"How responsible are you for the 34?" Holmes asked, in reference to the 34 Essendon players who this week were found guilty by the Court of Arbitration in Sport of taking the banned substance thymosin beta-4, and banned from AFL for 12 months.
"Firstly, it is devastating for them," Hird answered. "I should have known more and done more and I feel extremely guilty and bad for that, because I made decisions in real time that in hindsight I think were wrong."
And that was about as close as Hird got to saying: "Yeah, I stuffed up big time, this whole mess was in large part my fault," which is what most of Australia had tuned in to hear.
But for the most part, Hird talked not about the procedures he put in place (or didn't put in place) in 2012, when the supplements program was underway.
Instead, like the expert PR man he is, he changed the message to his message. And his message was how worried he felt for the victims: the Essendon 34.
By constantly talking about how sorry he felt for these guys, Hird tried to come across as a father figure, not an irresponsible coach. In offering to help them in any way he could in the future, he was changing his public visage to protector, not a man whose duty-of-care failure has destroyed dreams.
It's easy to imagine that Hird does indeed have immense sympathy for 34 players, some of whom have had their entire careers snuffed out, and all of whom will suffer various degrees of financial and personal hardship in the wake of the CAS ruling this week.
But the way Hird kept calling them "sacrificial lambs" made you think whoa, slow down, Jimmy. The highest court in sport just found them guilty. Sacrificial lambs are, by definition, innocent.
"What will haunt me is that the players have been put in a position where they are seen as drug cheats," Hird said to Holmes, his eyes moistening right on cue.
"I'm not sure absolution will come for myself in this story but the reason I wanted to be here tonight is that I don't want history to view the players as drug cheats. The main reason to be here is I want people to understand that these players did not take drugs and they did nothing wrong."
But, according to the official bodies that matter, they did do plenty wrong. And the more Hird denies that, the more he seems to be shifting the focus away from his role in the saga.
Of course James Hird doesn't want 34 good guys labelled drug cheats. What kind of coach and mentor would that see him remembered as in history's harsh, un-nuanced light?
Forget the legacy of the 34. The real legacy James Hird has been fighting to protect all this time -- and fighting stronger than ever to protect this week -- is his own. But Australians have good bullshit detectors. And most of us know what Hird is up to.Suggest a correction