January 11, 2016

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended 34 current or former Essendon players for the Australian Football League season after ruling in favor of an appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency and setting aside the league's initial decision to clear the athletes in the biggest doping scandal in the country's history.

WADA took its appeal to sport's highest court after the AFL's anti-doping tribunal last March stated it could not be ''comfortably satisfied'' that any of the players had violated anti-doping rules by using Thymosin Beta-4 under the club's supplements program during the 2012 season.

In a statement Tuesday, the CAS said it was satisfied the players had taken the banned substance and were significantly at fault, imposing mandatory two-year bans. CAS said most of the 34 players would be suspended until Nov. 13 this year, depending on the back-dating that applies in each case.

The court rejected an argument of ''no significant fault, no significant negligence'' which could have drastically reduced the sentences.

Of the 34 players who were contracted to the Melbourne-based club when the offenses occurred, 17 are still active in the AFL, including 12 at Essendon. The players include Essendon captain Jobe Watson, who won the Brownlow Medal in 2012 as the league's best and fairest player.

WADA Director General David Howman said the CAS decision upheld the standards of proof set out in the WADA code.

''If the AFL tribunal's decision had prevailed, it would have set a damaging precedent for future non-analytical anti-doping cases and, therefore, been detrimental for anti-doping efforts worldwide,'' he said.

The severity of the penalties handed down by the CAS was a setback for league and club officials who believed any bans imposed by the court might be backdated so heavily the players would miss only a handful of games.

The CAS verdict, delivered by a three-man panel headed by British barrister Michael Beloff, is likely the last step in the anti-doping process that started in February 2012 when Essendon announced its supplements program was being investigated by the AFL and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency. The bans are expected to have widespread ramifications on the Australian rules league and the club.

Essendon chairman Lindsay Tanner said the club was ''digesting the decision'' and declined to immediately comment on it.

James Hird, who was Essendon coach when the investigation into the team began in 2012, described the penalties handed down to the players by CAS as ''a miscarriage of justice.''

''I am shocked by this decision,'' he said in a statement. ''I firmly believe the players do not deserve this finding. They do not deserve to face a 12-month suspension from the sport.''

Hird had been suspended from coaching for one year for his involvement in the team's supplements program, returned to coach Essendon in the 2015 season, and then stepped down in August.

The head of the AFL Players' Association, Paul Marsh, also attacked the WADA code, saying it caught people who are not cheats.

''I don't have a great deal of faith in the WADA regime and ASADA (the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency) is a part of that,'' Marsh said. ''We are struggling to understand how the CAS decision can be so different to that of the AFL anti-doping tribunal.

''If the players were administered with banned substances, they have been deceived,'' he added. ''They are the victims, not the perpetrators. They deserve our sympathy, not our scorn.''

ASADA chief executive Ben McDevitt said, however, that the players had been informed of the league's anti-doping rules and should have been aware they were responsible for all substances that entered their body.

''This unfortunate episode has chronicled the most devastating self-inflicted injury by a sporting club in Australian history,'' McDevitt said in a statement. ''Unfortunately, despite their education, (the players) agreed to be injected with a number of substances they had little knowledge of, made no enquiries about the substance and kept the injections from their team doctor and ASADA.

''At best, the players did not ask the questions, or the people, they should have. At worst, they were complicit in a culture of secrecy and concealment.''

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