Rugby League

Hollow, inadequate: Denials and silence made a shameful exercise so much worse

“Player welfare is always number one, no matter what’s going on. You always want everyone to be happy and all that.”

Mark Ricciuto, August 3, 2022

Of all the hollow responses to Eddie Betts’ horrifying revelations about the Adelaide Crows’ pre-season camp of 2018 – and that queue is a lengthy one – the ongoing claim by the game’s governors and echoes by the Crows’ football director and former captain that player welfare was always a club priority rings among the shallowest.

Still, Ricciuto was as invested as any board member at the club in the motivations behind the twisted philosophy which followed the shock 2017 grand final loss to Richmond. It was his man, then Adelaide football boss Brett Burton, who introduced the Collective Minds team to the club, and who staunchly defended the camp in the aftermath.

The horrifying account in Eddie Betts’ book have exposed the inadequate responses to the Crows camp.Credit:Getty Images

Ricciuto’s closest connections to the team were club leaders Taylor Walker and Rory Sloane – also his business partners – and both those players said the camp for them was a positive experience. The divisions in the playing and coaching groups which followed the camp were largely provoked by the lack of support shown to those who were still suffering in its aftermath.

Player welfare was clearly not a priority at the Crows back then and the club’s failure to truly get its wish and “move on” from that shameful exercise stems from its failure to adequately address just how devastating an impact it had on some individuals.

If Ricciuto knew that deeply personal and often traumatic details divulged by players to camp counsellors were then thrown back at them during gruelling physical sessions, as Betts revealed, then he must resign immediately. If Don Pyke saw this happen and did not intervene, then he too is tainted.

Adelaide Crows players in the “power stance” as they line up for the 2017 grand final against Richmond.Credit:Getty

Walker admitted in an exclusive interview with The Age on the eve of Adelaide’s grand final rematch with Richmond in late March 2018 that he was a camp supporter but that some aspects of it had upset his Indigenous teammates. He revealed he had called a meeting with the playing group just days earlier and asked them to shelve their misgivings until after the Tigers clash.

It was around that time that Sloane uttered his “better husband, better son” endorsement about the camp and also in that timeframe according to Betts that he departed the Crows leadership group. If Walker and Sloane ever did at the time adequately address the player misgivings – and those holding them were not exclusively Indigenous – then Betts’ book did not refer to it.

Shortly afterwards then Adelaide chairman Rob Chapman said the camp stories had been exaggerated and that what took place was no different to similar corporate experiences he had encountered. Another Adelaide boss suggested some players’ wives were fuelling key elements of the post camp trauma.

And so it went on. Denials followed by small concessions followed by resignations and sackings, all the way up until Betts’ autobiography was released this week. Even now, with nowhere to turn, the overriding sentiment from the club has been the expressed desire to “move on”.

The adage that the cover-up is so often worse than the incident has rarely seemed more appropriate than in the case of the Crows’ Queensland camp. And while the camp’s misdeeds were entirely different, the similarities to the Essendon drug scandal are noteworthy. Right down to a doctor’s report – in the Crows’ case it was penned by the club’s chief medical officer Marc Cesana in the aftermath of the camp.

So the Adelaide Football Club failed its players at the time. Those senior coaches who saw what happened at the camp failed to stand up and in its aftermath the club’s governors failed again. In attempting to gain a competitive edge, player welfare was not even in the ballpark and the club capitulated on and off the field accordingly.

But it is the governing body of the game which could have done so much more and should also be ashamed. The sad fact of the matter is that the AFL got to the truth and did not adequately respond and the Players Association investigated the matter largely due to revelations in the media but got nowhere.

Betts signs copies of his book at Readings on Friday.Credit:Jason South

The AFL was ducking for cover this week and hiding behind its various bureaucratic thickets. It released a self-serving and lengthy public missive listing the lip service changes it finally made in part as a result of Adelaide’s decision to hire unchecked external consultants. This is the same organisation which mandated integrity units at every club after the Essendon scandal but Adelaide’s bosses did not see fit to run its pre-season camp strategy past its new integrity committee.

As with Adam Goodes no name was given to the expressed regret in this week’s wishy-washy league statement. And as with Goodes, the Essendon injecting program and Melbourne’s tanking, it’s worth noting the AFL was painfully slow to respond and only did so once the scandals hit it in the face and it had nowhere else to turn. Gillon McLachlan’s “broader” apology delivered to Betts on 3AW on Friday was disappointingly careful.

And McLachlan’s ongoing excuse that the Crows broke no rules and therefore were not sanctioned remains difficult to fathom. When it suits the competition’s governing body it shapes a crime to fit the punishment. Take Melbourne and the tanking scandal. The league’s seven figure financial punishment and draft penalties never found the club guilty of deliberately manipulating results – in fact McLachlan famously said he did not know what tanking meant.

And if player welfare has become a top order priority for the game then Adelaide had to be made a cautionary example and adequately punished. Certainly the players who gave the most traumatic evidence deserved an apology back then.

The AFL Players Association, well staffed and equipped with its multi-millions of dollars of competition funding, stand embarrassed. Shattered by Betts’ traumatic recall of what took place AFLPA boss Paul Marsh, who tried but failed to learn the awful truth, has said his association would revisit the event now. Those players who failed to divulge the worst of what took place to their union say that they were unwilling to blow up the club. Some felt bound by club loyalty, others by putting winning ahead of all else and others by suggested non-disclosure agreements.

PA executives have claimed this week they hold no investigative powers. This too is inadequate and at the very least an Indigenous representative or mediator should have been seconded to interview those Indigenous players who had suffered, which was a matter of public record. The PA might have tried but it should have tried harder.

Back in 2019, when the consequences of the Adelaide camp were still reverberating across the competition, the AFL and the Players Association ploughed significant resources into a joint venture prioritising players’ welfare and mental health across the industry. The joint venture between the two bodies’ two doctors appointed to head office – Dr Kate Hall as the game’s head of mental health and wellbeing and Dr Ranjit Menon as the AFL’s chief psychiatrist.

And yet, despite this new and historic collaboration, the players’ association remained completely in the dark regarding the camp experiences of Betts and others while the AFL knew. Even allowing for the confidentiality surrounding the AFL integrity investigation into the camp it seems staggering that the AFLPA had no clue about the more horrifying details.

Among the sad truths of this story is that no individual who suffered at the Adelaide camp of 2018 stood up at the time or in the immediate aftermath. No one felt comfortable until now to go public and put their name to the traumatic experiences they endured. Eddie Betts deserves to be commended for his bravery. But ultimately the terrible story of the Adelaide camp poses the question yet again of why trusting parents in good faith should hand their prodigiously talented teenagers over to supposedly professional AFL clubs.

Particularly when the checks and balances put in place by the game’s governing body and its leaders fail to adequately protect them. Not to mention adequately apologise.

The Age reported on the Adelaide Crows’ camp in 2020, in a story which included a number of similar allegations to those in Eddie Betts’ autobiography, as well as other claims. Collective Mind sued for defamation. In December 2021, The Age and Nine made a business decision to settle the case and issue an apology without admitting that the story was inaccurate.

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