Dealing with Dank

Parts of the puzzle? (clockwise from above): Stephen Dank, Andrew Demetriou, Neil Craig, Cameron Schwab, Gillon McLachlan and Jack Trengove.The AFL’s second most powerful official is not known for flashes of anger. But when a delegation of Melbourne officials told Gillon McLachlan during a confidential meeting in late February that the club’s doctor had been communicating with sports scientist Stephen Dank, the usually composed McLachlan reacted testily: ”It’s not still going on is it?”

During the past week, the question of what role Dank played at the Demons has left the struggling club accused of a cover-up.

The Demons now face the prospect of being sanctioned by the AFL and one of its senior players being investigated by doping authorities. But was there a club-wide cover-up or attempt to mislead the league by several of its officials? Or does the club’s predicament flow more from a doctor’s serious blunder and how that has played into a rolling scandal?

One of the few certainties in the Dank affair is that things are mostly uncertain. The narrative remains short on hard, publicly verifiable evidence and is forming like a tricky jigsaw puzzle, which is far from complete.

On February 5, McLachlan called Melbourne CEO Cameron Schwab to inquire about rumours Dank was hanging around the club. The same day, Essendon held a short press conference to detail its concerns about the supplement program Dank had previously implemented at the Bombers.

Schwab told McLachlan he’d never heard of Dank but later called McLachlan back and told him – according to notes retained by Schwab – that Demons doctor Dan Bates had ”communications” with Dank and the club had considered employing him. McLachlan advised Schwab to immediately jettison the sports scientist.

Two days later, it became clear why. The federal government released the results of a year-long inquiry into what it described as widespread doping in sport.

While naming no names and providing no hard evidence, the report by the all-powerful Australian Crime Commission deals extensively with the work of Dank.

Three weeks later, on February 25, a Demons delegation met McLachlan and two other senior AFL officials. Melbourne was represented by Schwab, president Don McLardy, coach Mark Neeld and senior managers Neil Craig and Josh Mahoney.

The club’s internal file notes of the meeting detail McLachlan’s question about whether Dank was still dealing with Bates and also the club’s response that the association had ended on February 5 but that, before then, the pair had been communicating.

Schwab’s handwritten notes also state the Melbourne officials were told that the AFL planned to interview Bates (the notes read: ”Dan Bates – conversation with AFL investigators”) and that the AFL knew far more about Dank than it could let on.

A confidential AFL record of the meeting shows that the league documented admissions from the Demons’ delegation that its players had been injected with supplements at an external location but that this ”off-site injecting has stopped”.

It is not clear whether Dank’s association with this injecting program was mentioned; if it was, the full details of Dank’s association with Bates – if they were known to any of the Melbourne officials present- were not conveyed to the AFL at this meeting.

But Melbourne did reveal that one its directors, David Thurin, was conducting a review for the club’s board into the use of ”non-prescription medication … qualifications of staff [and] procedures”.

The meeting finished cordially. Melbourne’s next dealing with the AFL a few weeks later would be less so.

Meanwhile, Thurin, a former obstetrician who married into the billionaire Gandel clan and is described by colleagues as ”meticulous”, ramped up his inquiries. First on his list was Bates. The doctor said that before February 5, he’d had numerous dealings with Dank, as the sports scientist had repeatedly impressed upon the doctor his knowledge and employability.

Bates said that, after discussions with Dank and doing some of his own research, he had sent players to be injected with vitamins B and C and anti-oxidant Glutathione (substances all approved by the World Anti-Doping Agency).

Bates told Thurin he wanted the injections to take place at a health centre he was familiar with, but that Dank convinced him he could get a cheaper price at a clinic in Melbourne’s north. When the players arrived at the Gladstone Park Medical Clinic to be injected by a registered nurse, Dank was waiting in the centre’s foyer.

In late 2012 or early 2013, Dank also floated with Bates the prospect of Dank’s favoured supplier, chemist Nima Alavi, sponsoring the Demons, and discussed two longer-term projects; the first involved regulating players’ testosterone levels and the second improving their resistance to colds and flu.

Dank was told the club might be interested in adopting these programs if certain conditions were met. Dank never got a chance to respond in detail.

On February 5, Bates sent Dank a text telling him the pair could no longer communicate. While Bates had held out the possibility of paid work, Dank was never given a cent.

Thurin’s final report to his fellow Melbourne directors was presented on March 19 and contained a full-page devoted to Dank. ”It was comprehensive,” says one person who has read it.

But what no one on the board knew was that it was also missing a crucial piece of information. The same piece of information was also missing from the list of supplements the club had earlier provided the AFL. In withholding this information from Thurin, Bates had created a time bomb.

It exploded 10 days ago, when the ABC’s 7.30 program broadcast text messages between Bates and Dank, who had been busy leaking his phone communications to media outlets that he perceived as friendly (including Fairfax Media).

The 7.30 program aired texts that referenced six controversial supplements, none of which were vitamins or anti-oxidants.

”Melbourne must have breathed a sigh of relief that its supplements program had gone undetected … until now,” 7.30 reported.

To further this claim, the program referred to a short public statement about Dank made by the Demons on February 5, which focused on the fact that Dank’s efforts to be employed had failed and that he had no direct involvement in the treatment or training of its players.

The claims on the program infuriated AFL boss Andrew Demetriou, who immediately issued a statement saying the AFL was ”urgently seeking a further explanation from Melbourne Football Club about the veracity of the claims [on 7.30] and how they can be reconciled with previous statements from the club”.

Melbourne was also shocked. That same night, as rain fell outside, senior Demons officials assembled at the club’s headquarters. It wasn’t all bad: the Demons officials quickly confirmed that five of the six supplements named in the texts had never been used on players.

The story of the sixth supplement was different. After speaking with Dank in December 2012, Bates had arranged for co-captain Jack Trengove to have a foot injury treated with a single tube of cream containing anti-obesity drug AOD9604, to be supplied by Dank’s favoured chemist.

Bates had failed to tell Thurin about this. And while he had spoken to Thurin about his texts, calls and emails with Dank, he hadn’t relayed the full details of these communications.

The next morning was an ugly one for the club. Demetriou said in a radio interview that Melbourne would be in breach of league rules if the club had lied to his officials about Dank.

”If there was an association [between Dank and Bates], regardless of whether there has been an employment agreement, I think that would have been relevant to our briefings,” said Demetriou. ”This issue of ethics and trust in our code … is something that you can’t play ping-pong with.”

The comments were seized upon in the media and the cover-up drums began beating hard.

A senior official at the club agrees that Bates’ conduct is serious, but says that Demons officials are furious that the AFL has not publicly acknowledged that in February the club did pass on details to McLachlan about Dank’s links to Bates and Thurin’s planned review.

Club insiders say that the AFL never requested a copy of this review and did not send an investigator to interview Bates until the day after 7.30 aired. That same day, Bates stood down from the club.

Says the senior official: ”We are a football club, not an investigation agency. The AFL and the government have all the powers to do in-depth investigations and they keep saying that they know more than everybody else. To say that the club as a whole tried to cover anything up or mislead the AFL is a joke.”

The AFL’s private view is that, given the seriousness of the issues involved, Melbourne should have passed every detail on to the league as soon as they came to light, including the information about Dank discovered by Thurin.

There are also questions about whether Craig or any other Demons officials did not disclose all that they knew about Dank at the February 25 meeting with McLachlan or in the subsequent weeks.

Whether the club will face sanctions is an open question. The Demons’ most clear and present danger is the move this week by WADA to declare anti-obesity drug AOD9604 a banned substance.

This does not mean Trengove or the Essendon players who took it will be charged, as any such prosecution would face serious legal hurdles.

But for the players it increases the stomach-churning uncertainty that has become the hallmark of the entire doping scandal.