THE NRL and the clubs named in the Australian Crime Commission report could sue ASADA, the ACC and even the government ministers who tabled it, according to legal experts.
Clubs named in the report are furious their brands have been tarnished and several have privately revealed it has had an impact on their ability to find new sponsors or re-sign existing ones. Even those clubs not named in the ACC's report into doping in sport and links to organised crime insist the announcement will have a detrimental impact on their bottom line.
ACC chief executive John Lawler justified last Thursday's dramatic press conference with Sports Minister Kate Lundy and Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare, saying it was necessary to put the public and the alleged criminals ''on notice''. However, prominent barrister Christopher Branson QC said the situation could become ''actionable'' and suggested the aggrieved clubs could bring a joint action with the NRL if the investigation came to nought.
''Everyone has done their level best to comply but there is this blanket smear, which is entirely unsatisfactory,'' Branson said.
''The ACC doesn't normally make public announcements. This is an exceptional situation and not how they normally operate. The NRL plus the clubs would have to prove that there would be damages through the interference with their sponsorships. You would also need to look at the contractual relationships between the NRL and ASADA. There could be a drop in takings at the ground - it may be that the fans don't turn up because of the belief they are watching drug cheats.
''There's no precise precedent for this but the law can provide a remedy if it can be substantiated.'' So far six clubs - Manly, Cronulla, Newcastle, North Queensland, Penrith and Canberra - have been named. The Cowboys have intimated they may pursue the matter, while senior Sea Eagles officials are discussing their options with Branson.
Malcolm Davies, special counsel at Blackstone Waterhouse Lawyers, said ministers Lundy and Clare might find themselves in the legal crossfire. ''You could look at those who published the material, starting with the ministers at the press conference,'' he said.
''They weren't speaking on a privileged occasion, they weren't in the house of representative or the senate.
''Anything ASADA said, you would have to relate to the loss of sponsorship. The ACC are in a different position. If it can be shown that what the ACC said caused the loss, there's no reason they can't be sued. But the prime candidates are the two ministers.'' Davies said it would not be possible to launch a class action as the damages claims of individual clubs would all be different. However, he said the NRL and its clubs could unite in legal action.
''There are common facts and these could be heard together and each of the club's damages could be assessed separately,'' he said. ''While there couldn't be a class action, there could be a common trial at least as a part of the claim.''
The NRL commissioned Deloitte to audit the sports science departments of several clubs following the ACC's report.
In an intriguing twist, betting agency Sportsbet recently commissioned the firm to examine optimal models for rugby league. A loss of millions of dollars was forecast if the ARLC chose the turnover model in taking its cut from wagering.
The report also touched upon integrity issues. Sportsbet boss Matt Tripp said last August that the game risked having ''three Ryan Tandys a year'' if punters were encouraged to bet offshore.