THE AFL has revealed its contingency plan to ensure Essendon can field a competitive team after the Court of Arbitration for Sport's "devastating decision" to suspend 12 current Bombers for the entire 2016 season.
Speaking at AFL House after CAS delivered its verdict on Tuesday morning, League CEO Gillon McLachlan said the AFL "feels deeply" for the players but accepted the decision.
"The AFL will support the players and the club through this period, but these suspensions must stand as part of our commitment to clean sport," he said.
A dozen current Bombers – including skipper Jobe Watson, vice-captain Dyson Heppell and 2015 club champion Cale Hooker – have been banned for the upcoming season.
Former players Jake Carlisle (St Kilda), Stewart Crameri (Western Bulldogs), Jake Melksham (Melbourne), plus Angus Monfries and Paddy Ryder (Port Adelaide) take the total to 17 current AFL players sidelined for the 2016 campaign
McLachlan announced a range of measures which were considered by the AFL Commission last month in the event of player suspensions, which include:
- Essendon having the ability to upgrade its five rookie-listed players as replacements for suspended players, as though the suspended players had long-term injuries.
- The Bombers can add 10 'top-up' players to their list, not limited to previous AFL players only.
- Existing contract values for the listed players who have been suspended shall be included in the cap.
- Extra payments to supplementary players will be included in the club's salary cap but Essendon will receive an allowance for payments to supplementary players over the cap limit.
- Melbourne, Port Adelaide, St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs will each be able to upgrade one rookie to their senior lists as a replacement player.
McLachlan said the suspended players had been "horribly let down" by the former Essendon administration which oversaw the 2012 supplements regime.
"This is a devastating decision for the past and present players of the Essendon Football Club and the AFL feels deeply for them," McLachlan said.
"It is our view that they've been horribly let down by the administration of the time, but the club has sought to acknowledge what has happened and move on from these events.
"The welfare of the 34 affected players is paramount and we'll be working with the AFL Players' Association, the club and all players and their representatives to get them through this extraordinarily tough period."
McLachlan also announced that Watson's 2012 Brownlow Medal win would be "reviewed" by the AFL Commission next month. The Bombers skipper will be invited to speak at the meeting.
AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick said Essendon's supplements scandal had been a "stain on our game" resulting in a "very harsh" punishment for the players.
"This has been a very dark period, but the last four years will not define the Essendon Football Club," Fitzpatrick said.
"It will not define Australian football.
"Essendon’s history is too important … and its future is owned by the members and supporters, and not by the last four years.
"The club has two very respected people in the new chairman, Lindsay Tanner, and new coach, John Worsfold, and the AFL is committed to doing what we can to assist the club in moving forward."
After AFL Players Association boss Paul Marsh called for the League to review its partnership with the World Anti-Doping Authority in the wake of the suspensions, Fitzpatrick said the process needed to be looked at.
"This Essendon process has taken too long, and CAS’ judgment today invites a discussion about the way the code applies to team sports in future," he said.
"We look forward to working with ASADA and WADA, and with government to keep sport clean and to protect the health and safety of players."