Dozens face doping penalties

The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority’s inquiry  into the use of prohibited substances in two football codes is on the cusp of a staggering climax as 17 players from Cronulla’s 2011 squad and as many as 40 from AFL team Essendon face possible sanctions.

In a precursor to a potential doomsday scenario for the two clubs at the centre of the more than year-long investigation, both stand to be decimated if the alleged breaches go on to result in two-year bans for dozens of their players.

It is believed ASADA, whose new chief executive Ben McDevitt begins in the post on Monday, is ready to issue show-cause letters as early as this week.

The NRL and AFL have been eagerly awaiting news from Canberra about whether their seasons would be turned upside down 15 months after the infamous ‘‘darkest day in Australian sport’’ news  conference in the capital that sparked the investigation.

The end of that wait is fast approaching. Fairfax Media has been told 17 players who were at Cronulla in early 2011 – the period under the ASADA microscope – will be the recipients of show-cause notices. Furthermore, it is believed up to 40 players from the Essendon list at the time of their controversial supplements program in 2012 can expect letters.

It is understood ASADA’s outgoing chief executive Aurora Andruska, who finished in the role last Friday, was keen to have the notices issued before her nearly four-year stint in charge ended but the anti-doping body’s lawyers are still applying the finishing touches to the paperwork.

That job has now been left to former Federal Police assistant commissioner McDevitt, who foreshadowed a hardline stance against drug cheats when his appointment was announced by Sports Minister Peter Dutton on  Friday.

The issuing of show-cause notices does not in itself mean the NRL and AFL players will be suspended. It is a preliminary step towards taking action against athletes alleged to have violated doping rules. Players are then given the chance to argue why they should not be charged with an offence.

If they choose not to, or are unable to provide a satisfactory submission, they can then be placed on ASADA’s register of findings and be issued with infraction notices by their sport’s governing body on the orders of the watchdog’s anti-doping rule violation panel.

Athletes can, however, also challenge ASADA by taking their cases to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and if they fail there the Federal Court, which could also potentially delay the process further.

The use of prohibited substances carries a mandatory two-year ban while anyone charged with trafficking is looking at a minimum four-year suspension.

While a number of Sharks players from 2011 have since moved on to other NRL clubs or no longer play in the competition, widespread suspensions would be a crushing blow to Cronulla, who have already been fined $1 million by the NRL and had their coach Shane Flanagan stood down for 12months over the saga.

One Cronulla player was last year close to accepting a six-month suspension for providing ‘‘substantial assistance’’ to ASADA investigators but decided against it.

Essendon, who were fined $2 million and disqualified from last year’s finals series by the AFL as well as having coach James Hird suspended for a year and sanctions placed on other officials, would also be left devastated if the notices lead to doping charges and bans.

The pending issuing of the letters also raises the question whether those behind the scenes during the course of the clubs’ respective supplements programs such as coaches and staff could wind up in ASADA’s crosshairs.

The agency’s readiness to finally begin action against players comes after an independent review, conducted by former Federal Court judge Garry Downes, of their lengthy investigation and briefs of evidence against individuals involved was completed late last month.

Only one player from either code, former Canberra winger Sandor Earl, has to date been charged by ASADA after admitting to banned peptide CJC-1295 to assist his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery while at Penrith in 2011

Sports scientist Stephen Dank, who allegedly ran the supplements programs at Cronulla and Essendon, was in March issued with a show-cause notice relating to his time at the Bombers.

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