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Baby Bombers Don't Deserve Suspension

13/01/2016 10:04 AM AEDT | Updated 02/08/2016 9:36 AM AEST
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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 05: Dyson Heppell of the Bombers poses for a selfie with a fan during an Essendon Bombers AFL training session at True Value Solar Centre on September 5, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

If you ask any Aussie boy what their dream career is, an AFL player is very often the response. But that dream comes true for very few. The minority play their way up the ranks at their local club and count their lucky stars when they make the annual draft come November.

Before they know it they are waving goodbye to their family, friends and (in most cases) small-town lives for the big smoke at the tender age of 18. Their new football club becomes family. Their new teammates, brothers. The field, their home away from home.

Every decision is made for them; when they train, what they eat, and -- of course -- when to retreat to their beds on Saturday nights. The rookies often board with families known very well to the club and dinner is on the table every night. The club help them manage their finances, their psychological state, their relationships and their health.

It's necessary, right? They are 'just young men' dealing with rapidly growing bank accounts, a new-found fame trumping that of most politicians in the country (whether you like to admit this or not), and -- debatably the most impactful -- a pressure to stay in the league they've worked so hard to claw their way into.

So when a sports scientist hired to manage the club's supplements program tells one of these 18-year-olds to take a supplement, he doesn't ask questions. Whether he thinks it's right or wrong (and we'll probably never know), he does what he's told.

Three years later, he's not only vice-captain of the team, but found guilty of an anti-doping violation rule and suspended for 12 months.

This is the case for Dyson Heppell, whose home away from home -- the Essendon Football Club -- is currently in a crisis rivalling family breakdowns around the country. Heppell is one of the 34 past and present Bombers players to be suspended for the 2016 season after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) found them guilty of doping offences.

Upholding the World Anti-Doping Agency's appeal, the CAS overturned the AFL Tribunal's original ruling last March that the players were not guilty of taking the banned substance Thymosin Beta-4 in 2012.

Former Essendon coach James Hird has dubbed the latest ruling a "miscarriage of justice for 34 young men" and the AFL Players Association told media they are "shattered for every individual player involved".

But the CAS have executed their clear view of 'you take the substance, you take the blame'.

Sport Psychologist Tracey Veivers -- who is currently working for the Brisbane Lions -- sheds some light on why players with suspicions could have turned a blind eye.

"These are young, developing men. It isn't realistic to put mature shoulders on all 46-plus players. You throw in that trust element with those in authority, such as the team doctors and performance specialists, on top of the pressure to make it and you've just got a melting pot of possibilities which can occur," Veivers said.

"Dare we even mention the complexity of a sports science field where individuals are not always appropriately qualified in that field which should, but doesn't hold its own accountable, then it can be debatable that it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.

"The structure of the high-performance environment in professional football such as AFL can potentially condition young developing players to learn to not think for themselves or even to question the process."

But they now have one big decision to make -- whether to sue or not.

On Tuesday a former player-manager said Essendon Football Club could be sued up to a total of $40 million from players.

The club -- which may also lose sponsorships -- will likely find themselves deep in a heap of divorce paper and Jobe Watson may lose his Brownlow medal. But the greatest loss of all to the suspended players may not be their careers, but their health, as the long-term side effects for the Thymosin Beta-4 are not known.

As for Heppell: a Fairfax reporter once wrote his teammates described him as "someone who mostly says yes to things".

I'm guessing he's a 'Yes Man' no longer.

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