In American politics, they call it a ‘till they drop’ press conference: The full disclosure approach that exhausts every question and suspicion with the intention of putting crippling controversy to bed once and for all.
Whether Kerry manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice succeeded in putting a full stop to the Brendan O’Sullivan doping furore in Tralee yesterday depends on others.
But his full and frank address of the issues in championship week, which lasted the best part of an hour, brought a degree of clarity to the issue and the whole area of supplement use in the GAA on the one hand, and raised some questions of Sport Ireland and the anti-doping process on the other.
The mea culpas first: There were mistakes on the Kerry side, from O’Sullivan himself to the information flow on supplements to the squad as a whole. For instance, it emerged that the squad had been advised on the whole area at a stage last season when the Valentia player was not part of the group. “That is absolutely number one. That was a harsh lesson for all of us.”
However, Fitzmaurice stressed that there was no risk of the same mistake being made by another Kerry player on the basis of ignorance — even though the case details were kept from them.
“We had no worries about the other players. When the (legal) advice was that it had to be kept under wraps until the process was finished, we couldn’t tell the other players. The circle just gets too big. As it was, the circle was tiny, that’s how it didn’t come out. That’s no reflection on the players in the squad, it’s just human nature. This thing was so sensitive. As the manager of the team, my first concern is towards the welfare of Brendan O’Sullivan and of every player that is with us — both on and off the pitch. That’s a big part of my job.
“The reasons we had no concerns is that the product Brendan used was not prescribed in any way by us. He went and got this because he didn’t like the taste of caffeine gels, and I would imagine — though he has never said this to me — it was because the type of person he is, he was thinking ‘this is is my first time on the Kerry panel and I’m not going to be a prima donna, going up and saying ‘I don’t like the taste of gel, can I get something else?’ That was his mistake.
“He rang me at half ten on the day he got the call (from Sport Ireland) and by the end of the conversation, I knew where the problem was, that he had bought something in a health shop in Cork. Thanks be to God we were able to nail it down so quickly, to the extent that it didn’t become a more serious thing — ie, an accusation of cheating.”
O’Sullivan checked everything on the label of the product he bought in a health store in Cork city — and satisfied himself that his research into the ingredients threw up no red flags. However, he overlooked the most important step of asking the team nutritionist, Kevin Beasley, or doctor, Mike Finnerty.
“That was his mistake,” said Fitzmaurice.
What would Beasley have advised him?
“Kevin would have either said ‘tough luck if you don’t like the taste of caffeine gel, don’t take it then. Don’t bother with it’. I don’t know realistically what percentage of a difference it makes to the lads, maybe a quarter of 1%. I don’t know whether there is a legal tab product out there even, but Kevin would have advised him of same.”
O’Sullivan is part of the squad for the championship, but it’s a long road back psychologically for the big midfielder, his manager accepted.
“The worst thing is there were so many different setbacks the whole way along the road. There was the initial shock — a four-year ban from everything, from every sport that exists. Then there’s the relief at recognising straight away what happened with a contaminated product. He came back training and we all thought that was that. Then on December 21 last year, he’s told at half five in the evening, you’re banned for seven more months. The problem then for Brendan was that he knew straight away that if he was to serve the remaining time, his Kerry career was over. (Because) if he didn’t have some kind of an impact throughout the course of the league this year, the chance of him being brought into the championship squad afterwards was nil. But every step in the process was six weeks, and seven weeks. Maybe it does take that long, but I just can’t figure out why it would take that long.”
Fitzmaurice said he would love to be educated by Sport Ireland on the reasons for such a dragged out process. There is surely a legitimate explanation, but he’s struggling to understand it, he argued yesterday.
“I’ve been involved in senior inter-county football for 20 years. I have never come across any suggestion of someone taking something to cheat. Never. I have never been offered anything. But I recognise, of course, there’s a temptation there, and of course you have to have regulations in place. We are lucky that in the GAA, the culture is the opposite of taking drugs. Maybe you have a tiny, tiny, number that will try and do it.
“It’s grand being held to WADA standards, but the length of the process, that to me is not very professional. It just isn’t. Maybe someone can come in and say ‘this is why it takes so long’, but it doesn’t wash with me at the moment. I don’t know how a fella can test for something on April 24th, 2016, and the report is released on June 1st, 2017 despite all the appeals stating the same thing. It’s not like there was any new evidence produced. It was the severity of the sentence that was the basis of the appeal.”
He said it had been a tough 14 months for everyone concerned, not least because Kerry had to “keep its powder dry” on the basis of legal advice, until the full Sport Ireland report was published. “There’s been some commentary to the effect that we’ve been trying to hide something — in fact it’s the opposite. We felt it was important that we could have issued a full statement prior to it breaking in the public domain. Our hand was forced because of the case being leaked.”
Fitzmaurice also believes Sport Ireland should investigate the source of the leak to the media. “That’s a huge question. The how, why, and who leaked it to the Sunday Independent. Who leaked that report when it wasn’t finished? That’s a big question for me. We had a statement ready to go on this since last July, but it couldn’t be released until the process was fully complete. (And) because this is a very robust process, you are guilty until proven innocent.
“Brendan was notified last May 12 at 10am when he got a phone call. ‘You failed a drug test, and by the way, you are banned for four years. That call came from Sport Ireland, which said that under WADA regulations, he was now banned for four years.
“It took us 11 weeks to prove (the product) was contaminated after being sent to the labs for testing. Why everything takes so long in these things, I can’t understand.
“What was so annoying last week was there was so much shooting in the dark going on. Our plan all along was, I would be sitting here telling the press about it now, and it would be done in a proper manner, and the media would get all the information together. Rather than from Sunday to Sunday, bits and pieces, fellas shooting in the dark, going off on solo runs. When we looked for legal advice last Saturday (week) if we could put the whole lot out there, we were told we couldn’t because we had to wait for this report.”
Did he fear that Kerry GAA, as a brand, had been damaged by the controversy?
“I would hope not. There’s been a lot of half-stories out there, and people speculating, and I understand why it was such a big story, I realise the significance of it, I am not a fool. We have felt all along that neither Kerry or Brendan had anything to hide, there was a process there, and it took a lot longer than we anticipated it would.
“But my thing all along was that we having to sit on it for so long. Going back to May 12, 2016, to be still here over a year later, that’s been very frustrating.
“And then for it to come out in the manner it did after sitting on it for so long, and having a statement ready — just to press a button — to inform everything from the start. And there would have been transparency from the start. We were robbed of that by someone who leaked the report.
“So who leaked the report? That is a big question.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved