Rugby league has always thrived on controversy.
But if controversy is league’s oxygen, there’s been a bit of methane added in recent weeks as a dirty secret, buried in 2002, has made its way to the surface. Perhaps finally the stink of the modern game will have sickened and disturbed enough people that we’ll have reached a tipping point. But I doubt it.
It’s been observed before that league players are not paid to think, but the randomness and idiocy surrounding the game extend much further.
The clearest message from this appalling incident and every other sexual assault, act of aggravated violence and other "misbehaviour" before then and ever since is this: a significant number of people involved in the NRL are incapable of making good decisions.
Frankly, the moral compass of the NRL is busted and everything associated with it needs to be torn down and re-built. The game brings joy and opportunity to many and it’s worth saving. But the Four Corners program "Code of Silence" showed rugby league needs to be saved from itself.
By people involved in the NRL, I’m not just referring to the players, coaches and management. I’m also talking about the players’ girlfriends and wives (not least of all poor Mrs Johns whose comment over her husband’s group sex session was, apparently, "I’m glad it wasn’t my daughter").
I’m referring also to sponsors, journos, commentators, social scientists, politicians (since we actually fund rugby league), blindly loyal fans and blind-drunk or commonsense-deficient women.
But perhaps most befuddled of all is the situation in which a part-owner of the competition is a media empire which also reports on the sport, adjudicates, queries and applauds. Whether individuals are impartial or not, the lines are too blurred between a sporting entity and a media conglomerate. Some of the most vocal commentators and critics, such as Rebecca Wilson who has been "associated" with News Limited CEO John Hartigan) receive a salary from the same company as many of our esteemed rugby league players.
As badly as that may be affecting league’s ability to wake up to itself, I don’t see it changing any time soon.
Beyond this, another big problem with rugby league players is that they don’t work. Before the game went professional, players used to have real jobs, but now they have little contact with the normal, everyday public outside of their controlled weekly schedules. Visiting a hospital, attending movie premieres or signing autographs does not give you insight into the wider community and in particular, women. It’s time they went back to clocking a 30+ hour per week job.
Whether they are connecting phones at a rape crisis centre or mopping the floor at the local Emergency ward, our sheltered league players each need to have some role in the real world.
Against this argument, we’ve all heard the counter-whine that being an elite athlete is a full-time job — but if you take out a fair chunk of the celebrity opportunities, Xbox, texting, sexting, Facebook, drinking sessions and rough toilet sex, suddenly there’s room for regular training, weights, pool, warm down sessions, media commitments and a real job.
This is related, of course, to the second issue: how much money these people earn. Money is an important ingredient in the poo sandwich you get when you mix jocks, youth, alcohol, insularity, social adulation, gender dimorphism and plenty of free time. Reduce the cash available and watch things get better.
Of course, there would be many players who would immediately head to European clubs or the cashed-up Japanese rugby union scene. But so be it. And if changing the intensive training structure lowered league’s overall performance standards a notch or two to produce a better all-round player (on and off the field) then why not make that change?
The third and probably most significant issue of all is the celebrity worship that’s involved. We seem to lose sense of ourselves in the presence of fame. Our ability to make logical calculations or sensible decisions is quashed by the supposed rewards of associating with celebrities. Nothing excuses the behaviour of the football players described on Four Corners but there does need to be greater insight into the social (and sexual) power we ourselves give our sports people.
This brings up the word of the week: "consent". And it’s a tricky one for many. According to much of the comment and behaviour coming to light, if you have consented to sex with one or more footy players then they clearly have a blank cheque. What seems to be missing is the acknowledgement that for a female in an intimate situation with one or more men weighing around 110kg each, who are paid to maximise their physicality and essentially cause pain and difficulty to their colleagues, it is often not possible to un-consent.
All these facts are staring us in the face. In diagnosing the problems with rugby league there’s no need to go intellectualising things. The swarm of pop-psychologists, sociologists and behaviouralists trying to understand the mind of the football player through the magnifying glass of academia are wasting their time. When we complete the current discourse on Group Sex 101, what’s next? The Fragile Emotional State of the Male Immediately After He Glasses His Girlfriend?
There is a fair proportion of the rugby league audience which reflects the values of its players. You only need to read a few comments on bulletin boards to gauge the abject stupidity on display (try here or here if you have some time, bile and wonder to spare).
While the debate bubbles away at that edifying level, the middle-class elites are busy trying to find traces of homoeroticism in rugby league, as though this will "explain" everything. Actually that line of enquiry gets you nowhere if what you want is to see women protected — all it does is help these generally hetero and secretly homophobic snobs think they have more ammunition to malign a sport they hate.
If "Code of Silence" made your skin crawl or you are disgusted that the 21st century is not as enlightened as you’d like to believe, the Footy Show and the regular reports of player misbehaviour give clear explanations of why. The remaining members of the Footy Show appear clearly rattled that behaviour which has been accepted for too long has caught up with the game and their potential livelihoods. Now it’s time they started leading by example and turned words of outrage into action.
But like I said, don’t hold your breath. You’re better off holding your nose for the next few scandals, and hope it all fades as the public simply turns away.
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