I grew up in Western Sydney where Rugby League was all that mattered. The mighty eels ruled the roost and Sunday afternoons were spent in front of the television in a blue and yellow guernsey. Nothing on this earth was more exciting than watching Brett Kenny’s long mullet locks streaking towards a line of white chalk.
I’m a fanatical spectator. I have a ‘team’ in every competition, (Go Thunder/Magpies/Swans/Tahs/Kings etc!) and could easily – happily even – spend a weekend glued to the television watching my favourites do their thing, and if they weren’t available, I would surf every digital and cable channel known to man to find someone to barrack for. No footy this weekend? Winter Olympics time – let’s watch the curling! Netball team has a bye? No problem. Lucie Safarova is in the final of an obscure sounding tennis tournament somewhere in the world. I will watch anything.
If you’re not a sports fan, stay with me, because this isn’t actually an article about sport. It’s about people. Sports people. More specifically, it’s about how we treat them and what we let them get away with.
Sometime after the Sydney Olympics I lost my taste for one sport in particular. Even with the mighty eels winning the minor premiership and making the grand final in 2009, I just couldn’t get myself behind the team. They had been tainted by the sport I once relished. Salary cap scandals were bad enough, and there was a constant conversation about chicken wing tackles, shoulder charges and grappling. What used to look to me like a hero showing a bit of mongrel suddenly looked more like thuggery. And the code basked in it. The Footy show created stunts so lowest common denominator that people literally got hurt. Commentators prided themselves in an inability to speak with adequate grammar to pass primary school. They decried the rights of players to flaunt the rules and be violent on filed because ‘origin.’
And then there was the off field antics that really turned my stomach. Two group rape scandals come immediately to mind. Several domestic violence incidents were clumsily swept under the carpet. Drug taking was excused time and time again. I’ve compiled a list at the bottom of this page, just for what I can remember over the last 15 years or so – off the top of my head. No research at all.
Instead of turning PR disaster after PR disaster into impetus for real change, the NRL has repetitively, systematically and blatantly ignored, swept aside or simply laughed off bad behaviour. Nowhere has ‘boys will be boys’ been more egregiously used than in Channel 9 commentary boxes during the Winter months of Australian Sport. It is beyond locker room talk – it is abuse, assault, sexual misconduct and worse. And it’s still very much alive.
In 2009 I had my son. Over the better part of a decade my interest in League had soured. I could no longer watch it without feeling angry. Moreover, I thought to myself, I don’t want *him* watching it. I don’t want him seeing violent, angry men off the field celebrated as heroes on it. I couldn’t stop thinking about the victim of the Cronulla Sharks sex scandal and how I would feel if I was her mother. Worse, each new scandal perpetuated an increasing degree of victim blaming and whataboutism. What was she doing going up to his room if she didn’t want to be raped by nine of his team mates? Wasn’t she drinking? I bet I know the sort. Probably wanted her 5 minutes of fame. Thinks she has a meal ticket. Anything but what really happened. Well, here’s what did really happen:
Is this what heroes look like? Really? These are team captains, National team captains, state representatives and Clive Churchill medal winners. These are the most celebrated men of the game.
And yes, I can hear the whataboutism already. ‘He wasn’t even charged.’ ‘That was never proven.’ ‘You’re taking it out of context.’ etc, etc etc. Sure, you can take individual cases and pull them apart if you want to, but type any one of these names into google with the word assault and you will likely get more than one result. And these are just the ones I remember, just the ones that were reported, just the ones that didn’t get squashed. Remember that only 1% of rapes are actually prosecuted in Australia and 99% of victims aren’t lying. (False reporting is estimated by the ABS to be about 1% of claims, consistent with most other crimes).
This week Steve Smith broke my son’s heart. Am I going to stop him from watching cricket? No. Is it a life lesson I am sad he has to learn? Yep. He also saw Steve Smith’s emotional apology and knew he was remorseful. He saw the huge – astronomical – penalty handed down for breaking a rule of his sport, not a rule of law that harms human beings.
I cannot say the same for rugby league. This is cultural. This is consistently giving token penalties for repeated acts of bad behaviour. This is a code that would rather slap a pink jersey on their players once a season and call themselves supporters of women, rather than doing the hard work and introspection to create real change.
Rugby League needs a Me Too moment and soon, if not because the regulatory body wants to be socially responsible then because its fast becoming irrelevant in a time when male entitlement is finally being called for what it is.
Can you remember any incidents I’ve forgotten? Tell me in the comments and I’ll add them in.