Bennett defends player bans as Olympians cry foul

KNIGHTS coach Wayne Bennett maintains that the NRL players who have accepted ASADA bans are ‘‘victims’’ but can understand why Olympic athletes believe they have been treated too leniently.

A host of stars from other sports have condemned ASADA’s handling of the scandal, which culminated in 10 current NRL players – including Knights Kade Snowden and Jeremy Smith –   accepting  on Friday backdated 12-month suspensions that will end in November. Most of those players  will effectively be sidelined for only three club games, despite pleading guilty to unwittingly taking banned substances while playing for Cronulla in 2011.

London swimming gold medallist Melanie Schlanger led the cries of protest when she tweeted: ‘‘A backdated 12 month ban for taking a banned substance?! Players to miss only a few games?! I feel sad for sport today ... I trust no one. I am well aware that I alone am responsible for everything I put in my body. Know that since I was 14.’’

Long jumper Mitchell Watt, who claimed a silver medal in London, tweeted: ‘‘Take prohibited drugs, get a 10 week ban. Accidentally give ASADA the wrong address of your house, get a 2 year ban. Truly ludicrous.’’

Newcastle discus thrower Benn Harradine, a two-time Olympian, said on Twitter: ‘‘Can’t believe I’m concerned about using supps & AFL players have been using synthetic PEDs & not serving bans! ASADA have 0 credibility.’’

His outrage was mirrored by Newcastle’s Commonwealth Games triathlete Aaron Royle, who tweeted: ‘‘Nothing shits me more than hearing the NRL players in the ASADA investigation claiming they did nothing wrong. YOU TOOK A BANNED SUBSTANCE ... another example of NRL players being the most unprofessional professionals.’’

Asked if he could understand such opinions, Bennett replied: ‘‘If I was an Olympic athlete, I’d be saying the same thing.

‘‘But it’s different. Every case is different. 

‘‘Olympic athletes haven’t had their lives played out for three years in public for what they did take and didn’t take. Usually, it’s for them a much quicker process because for them, it’s always private testings.

‘‘Everything we’ve seen unfold since that day has been the last way you’d want to conduct any investigation into anybody.’’

Bennett said the ASADA investigation had been ‘‘farcical’’ but the bottom line was that the players got ‘‘a pretty fair deal’’.

‘‘It’s so messy and everybody’s trying to save a bit of face,’’ he said.

‘‘The end result is the players have been as much the victims as anybody in this, from the moment they were told by people involved in their club that it was about recovery and it wasn’t performance-enhancing.

‘‘In the end, they’ve still taken the pain but in the end, it’s been minimised.

‘‘I think’s a fair outcome. As fair as you can get in a very difficult situation.’’

Bennett said players felt they were not guilty of cheating but could not risk the prospect of fighting to clear their names and incurring a possible two-year ban.

‘‘There was too much at stake the other way. I mean these guys have been tormented for days about this.

‘‘It’s not easy. They still don’t know what [substances] they took.

‘‘They got a show-cause notice that says what they took and that was probably the first time they realised what they were encouraged by their staff and other people to take.

‘‘I think they did the right thing for themselves, as hard as it may have been.’’

Bennett said he was ‘‘disappointed’’ in the way the government and ASADA had handled the affair since the ‘‘blackest day in sport’’ press conference 16 months ago. 

‘‘From that day on, it’s been catch-up and they’ve never caught up,’’ he said.

Highly critical on Friday of the coaching and training staff who were at Cronulla in 2011, Bennett was more measured on Saturday night when asked his opinion of Sharks coach Shane Flanagan, currently serving a nine-month ban.  

‘‘Obviously, the game believe that he’s done something he shouldn’t have done,’’ Bennett said.

‘‘I’m just extremely disappointed in any of the staff that were there that induced those players to do what they did.

‘‘We’ve got a greater responsibility than any of that. 

‘‘They trust us.’’

Knights skipper Kurt Gidley said the suspension of Smith and Snowden, who missed Newcastle’s 48-6 loss to Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night and will not play in their two remaining games this season, was ‘‘just another chapter in a tough year’’.

‘‘We were disappointed for those guys, for their situation, and they felt like they let us down, not being able to finish the year with us,’’ Gidley said.

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