Not All Thugs and Peons

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It’s Rugby League’s centenary year in Australia but there are reasons to believe the game has reached this milestone in poor health.

It’s not all bad. Fans are currently blessed with a fine crop of players, most rounds in the NRL still produce thrilling games, TV ratings are holding up, and we’re two-thirds of the way through a classic State of Origin series.

But underlying factors suggest that difficult times lie ahead. NRL clubs have serious cash-flow problems in NSW, there have long been poor crowds at Sydney games, and there are infrastructure deficits (arguably due to short-sighted management).

These are in addition to the problems that academic David Rowe described a couple of years back in his Tom Brock Lecture:

"Rugby League is the most vulnerable of the football codes in Australia, and the one with the slightest prospects for future prosperity. The professionalisation of Rugby Union, the belated rise of association football, and the enduring appeal of Australian Rules football are pressures from without. The unedifying legacy of Super League, and recurring sexual violence and club financial scandals, are disintegrating factors from within."

I think that it would be a great shame if, in a generation or two, the game and its unique heritage were lost. That’s why I’ve decided to make this call for newmatilda.com readers to give League a chance.

I know I’m pushing uphill – Rugby League and thinking people don’t often see eye to eye. Whenever I visit Melbourne, where AFL culture is ubiquitous, I’m always surprised at the contrast with my home town of Brisbane. Down south almost everyone – across lines of class, gender and ethnicity – seems to have an opinion and a club. Here, my colleagues in academe and the "knowledge professions", and my inner-city neighbours (especially the younger ones) largely eschew League in favour of the southern code or even soccer.

Many of them would probably concur with parts of Gregor Stronach’s flame-baiting piece on the ABC’s Unleashed forum a few weeks back, that "Rugby League is violent, brutish and ugly – a game played by thugs for the enjoyment of other mindless peons who need their entertainment spoon-fed to them … The whole Rugby League industry is a sham. A cruel hoax. The sale of parochial false hopes to hapless punters is a disgrace."

The talk of "thugs" and "peons" in Stronach’s piece can be traced to the game’s very origins. They come down to Rugby League’s beginnings in a particular version of class politics.

The game started late in the 19th century in the UK as a response to English Rugby Union’s intransigence on the issue of player payments – working-class players wanted to be compensated for time off work in the event of injury, but the authorities feared that this "professionalism" would mean that "gentleman" players would be swamped and lose control of the game, as had happened previously with Association Football.

The game was introduced to Australia early in the new century by some fast-talking entrepreneurs – many of whom were themselves players – and quickly stole Rugby Union’s crowds and champions.

By contrast with the UK – where Union is still the more popular sport – here in Australia, League conquered NSW and Queensland, and crucially, took Sydney by storm. Despite intermittent signs of revival and its advantages in terms of international competition, Union in Australia has since been characteristically confined to the middle-class ghettos of private schools and university colleges.

So League was at its origins an interloper, promoted by the Nation’s parvenus, and representative of the growing economic clout and diminishing deference of working people. It also seemingly encouraged that perennial folk devil – the young man of the lower orders – to drink, gamble and gather in crowds. Some of those involved in organising the game at that time had direct connections with the labour movement.

None of these factors helped in endearing it to right-thinking people, and versions of these concerns still preoccupy critics now. Initially, the press reception for the game was hostile, and a negative image was constructed that seems to have lodged in the minds of some. Thugs, peons: the language with which the game and its players have been dismissed has been in place for as long as it has been played. League has found its origins hard to shake off.

Of course, some more recent indiscretions by players haven’t helped to promote the game either. Some of these incidents and allegations have been genuinely horrible, but it’s worth noting that the way in which these events have been framed in the media has been consistent with a long-established rhetoric.

League historian Sean Fagan points out, for example, that from 1908 many in the press argued that the working-class players who supplemented their incomes by playing League were making more money than they could sensibly spend. Recent stories about drunkenness or bad behaviour have followed this pattern of suggesting that young men of humble origins simply can’t cope with being wealthy. That’s class-hatred, pure and simple.

Rowe was right in his lecture to say that in terms of gender relations, the League and its players still have a lot of hard work to do, and it goes without saying that violence against women is inexcusable. But the majority of "incidents" reported don’t involve violence at all, and hinge instead on players simply drinking too much late at night. For better or worse, young sportsmen, and young men everywhere, tend to do this – not just League players. Often, this sort of League "scandal" means players are held to standards and submitted to scrutiny that no other profession (including my own) could sustain.

The dynamics and geography of class have changed in Australia over time, but you’d have to say that League is still played largely on the wrong side of the tracks. Far from the old inner-city heartlands of the game, the great nurseries of League’s talent and the places where it still draws big crowds are now in the sprawl of western Sydney and outer Brisbane, and in regional centres, country towns, and remote communities. It’s an unfashionable game played by unfashionable people from unfashionable places.

The game is also now associated with entities that people on the left tend instinctively to recoil from: tabloid newspapers, commercial television, Fox Sports, News Limited. In chasing short-term bucks, the game has often been too quick to flush the rich history that may have secured a broader appeal – the AFL has been far cannier in marshalling its traditions.

For a range of reasons, the inner-city clubs, which might have nurtured a shared life and conversation between the cities and the suburbs and towns in the eastern States, simply can’t put bums on seats any more. In my opinion this is not only a problem for the sport, but is symptomatic of a broader social and political divide.

I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that League-phobia is an issue that goes to the heart of the left’s political problems in recent years. The sport is most popular precisely in those areas where conservatives have in the past won wedge elections by appealing to Labor’s traditional constituency, and pitting their values against a partly caricatured inner-urban "elite".

Rugby League is not just a sport in the suburbs, the sticks and the one-team towns like Newie and Townsville – it’s an important part of shared identity. It’s also central to the shared lives of some communities that have come under enormous pressure in recent years – witness the Lebanese community’s relationship with Canterbury-Bankstown, the disproportionate presence in the NRL of players from Pacific Islander communities, and the impact of players from remote Aboriginal communities (like the currently floored genius, Matt Bowen, from Hopevale in Cape York).

Sport offers a basis for empathy, shared references and the kind of common culture upon which a common cause can be built. It breaks down some of the immediate barriers to sociability and social action. I believe this not only in theory, but from having had something to say about football to people with whom I’ve had very little else in common, and proceeding to more substantial conversations from there.

This is the point at which we come to the thornier issue of aesthetics. There are a few lucid criticisms buried deep in Stronach’s complaints – the game has higher impact, is more regimented, and more linear than either AFL or soccer. The nuggety physique of the League player is quite different from the more sculpted and well proportioned bodies of those from other football codes. To the uninitiated, the game can seem like so much crash and bash, occasionally relieved by a kick and chase or rare moments of open running. In outline, that’s true, but familiarity can breed a deeper appreciation of its rhythms.

Rugby League is precisely about fleeting moments of grace in a landscape of toil, and about the meaning of that contrast. It’s less susceptible to the character of individual brilliance than, say, soccer, but perhaps paradoxically, individual contributions within a team effort tend to be more specialised. The fast-running athlete in the outside backs, or the playmaking half or three-quarter is utterly dependent on the space-creating grind of the forwards – everybody has their own unique role, and all are necessary to success. The best attacking player must earn their dues by tackling for half the game, and it’s much harder to defensively shut out a superior team than in other sports – defeat can be complete and harrowing. I’d argue that the most important attribute a league player can have is a work ethic that, by contrast with the more graceful sports, needs to be made obvious, and performed, on the field.

If you’d like to try the game, or try it again, I think you could do worse than tuning in (or going to the ground) for the third State of Origin match in Sydney. The three game series is poised at one-all, the game’s current reigning geniuses (both Indigenous men) Thurston and Prince will be playing together for Queensland, and it should be closely fought.

If you live in Sydney, and don’t want your local club moved or merged, get along to a game – we can’t do it all in the one-team towns.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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