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James Hird, Essendon hearing a first for TV

The Age logo The Age 18/06/2014 Jon Pierik
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Forget Judge Judy, the fight by Essendon and James Hird to have the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority's investigation quashed will enjoy unprecedented coverage, with ABC television to broadcast live next week's opening directions hearing in the Federal Court.

On another dramatic day in the supplements scandal, the AFL Players Association said the Essendon players remained "of the strong belief" they were not administered banned substances, had asked for an extension to when they reply to the show-cause notices and were "baffled" at suggestions by ASADA chief Ben McDevitt to take a plea and accept a reduced ban. Then Federal Court Justice John Middleton made the bold move to allow cameras into next Friday's opening hearing.

"Justice Middleton has agreed to allow a live television feed of the directions hearing on Friday, 27 June. The directions hearing starts at 10.15am. ABC television will be responsible for providing this," a court spokesman said.

It will be the first time the Federal Court has allowed access to a directions hearing, with previous broadcasts only of judgments.

The Bombers and Hird, who must provide key elements of their case to Justice Middleton by next Wednesday, are fighting to have the joint investigation by ASADA and the AFL deemed unlawful, therefore voiding the show-cause notices issued to 34 current and former players. ASADA maintains it has a safe case, and there were no complaints about its independence by those interviewed last year.

Lawyers acting for the AFLPA have asked for an extension to the 10-day period usually allowed to respond to show-cause notices. ASADA says it is considering this application.

Acting AFLPA chief Ian Prendergast said "at this stage I'm not aware of any players who believe they've taken a banned substance", despite all of the show-cause notices alleging the use of the banned Thymosin beta 4.

"Without the evidence, I struggle to understand how a player could get his head around taking any proposed penalty as was floated by Mr McDevitt over the weekend," Prendergast said.

"These players took all reasonable steps, they sought further information from the club in relation to the substances they were to be provided as part of the program which led to a series of meetings, and also the consent forms which were provided which clearly stated that these substances were compliant with the WADA Code and had been approved by the club doctor.

"They were also bound by their contracts to follow any legal direction by their employer, being the Essendon Football Club. And their education through ASADA and the AFL says if in doubt make sure your doctor approves anything that enters your body. They followed that to the letter of the law, and I think those circumstances should absolutely be taken into consideration in this matter."

Even if the Bombers and Hird are successful in court, McDevitt says ASADA has the added evidence from when the investigation continued after the joint probe stopped in August. He says players can come forward and, provided they admit they were duped and assist the case, could be given up to 75 per cent off a maximum two-year penalty.

Prendergast said it was impossible for players to respond to the show-cause notices and prove why they should not be put on a Register of Findings until the Federal Court case was complete. Once the directions hearing is complete, Essendon's lawyers hope the case begins within three months.

"The stay we're requesting is for the Federal Court matter to be finally resolved, and for the players' process to proceed in the event the process isn't knocked out through the challenge the club has issued," Prendergast said. "We've simply requested the evidence be provided for the purpose of responding to the show-cause notices. Largely, we're in the dark at the moment in terms of being able to properly advise these players, who have fully co-operated through the process."

ASADA strongly refuted Prendergast's inference that McDevitt had formed a view about the co-operativeness of Essendon players to date. "At no point has ASADA suggested players were not fully co-operative during the investigation," the statement said.

"ASADA CEO Ben McDevitt has offered players another opportunity to approach ASADA with information following the issuance of show-cause notices. This option is available to any athlete facing a possible doping violation."

ASADA would not say whether it would supply the players with any evidence before their deadline to respond to the notices.

While the Essendon players were updated on their options at a Monday night meeting, with the players so far remaining united in the fight to clear their names, Prendergast said he was unsure whether the players wanted Hird to return as coach later this year.

However, he said the saga was "taking its toll" on the players. He also said it was too early to discuss whether players would consider taking legal action against the club should infraction notices be issued.

Meanwhile, Prendergast's future with the AFLPA could be decided at a board meeting on Wednesday night. He was overlooked for the top job, with Paul Marsh, from the Australian Cricketers' Association, winning out. Prendergast, who will remain at least until September, had been the general manager of player relations, before stepping up when Matt Finnis quit.

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