AFL BOSS Gillon McLachlan has sympathy for the banned Essendon players, saying he did not blame them for the saga that led to their anti-doping suspensions.
McLachlan has a much kinder opinion of the 34 current and former players than ASADA chief executive Ben McDevitt.
While McDevitt also said he felt for the players, he added they only had themselves to blame.
McLachlan said the strong group culture at football clubs meant players were not encouraged to ask too many questions.
His comments will raise eyebrows in some quarters, given the strong belief of people such as McDevitt is that the players did not do enough to query the 2012 supplements regime at Essendon.
On Tuesday, the Court of Arbitrations for Sport rocked Essendon and the league when it upheld WADA's appeal and handed down two-year bans to the 34 players.
Half those players are still in the AFL – 12 at Essendon and five at other clubs – and with backdating they are suspended for this season.
"I don't blame the players, because if you've been around football clubs and played football, you know how culture works," McLachlan told Fox Footy.
"They've asked questions up front, they've signed a consent form.
"If you're going to be a good player at an AFL club, you don't ask too many questions.
"The culture is strong, you trust the people in place, and you do what you're told.
"You do everything you need to do that you think is legal to succeed.
"So there's a distinction between what CAS said with respect to no significant fault as it applies to the code and then there's how we perceive the responsibility of the players in day-to-day."
But McLachlan also said the bans showed that players had to be diligent with their anti-doping responsibilities.
"The lesson for the players is that on this issue, you can't be too careful," he said.
"The process has to be adhered (to) strictly and completely every time.
"It's a very tough lesson to learn."
In an extended interview, McLachlan strongly defended the AFL's conduct during the joint investigation with ASADA during 2013.
That led to a range of AFL penalties, including coach James Hird being suspended for a year and Essendon kicked out of the 2013 finals.
"What I feel very comfortable on is that every bit of information we got was actioned ... the right way to protect the integrity of our game and the health and welfare of the players," he said.
"Our handling ... has been tested by a lot of people, stress tested from a thousand different angles by strong-willed people.
"I feel confident as we look back that we took strong action."
McLachlan said the AFL's priorities now were offering help to the banned players and to Essendon.
"The welfare of the players and then the re-birth of Essendon are our priorities now," he said.
"That's going to be in various forms, whether it's emotional, whether it's a whole series of things to support players.
"Clearly Essendon are going to be weakened, how much we don't know."