There’s an air of head-scratching and confusion around rugby league at the moment.
What began as a few off-field incidents late last year has developed into a spate of player misbehavior, particularly with regards to the treatment of women. As a result, industry-wide frustration seems to be giving way to a sense of dejected confusion.
How did it come to this?
Commentators across the board have offered theory after theory on where the code has gone wrong, but one thing seems to be beyond argument – rugby league has a problematic relationship with women.
Stripped to its core, rugby league is a celebration of strength, speed and aggression. All characteristics that – rightly or wrongly – are generally associated with men, and have been since time immemorial.
So in this lead up to International Women’s Day, when we take time to reflect on the strides we have taken towards gender equality, we need to start by acknowledging that because of its fundamental physical nature, the literal rugby league field remains a space where women are separate.
That said, this segmentation along gender lines is no excuse for the fact that even off the field, rugby league remains a male-dominated space. And surely this is where we need to start. If there is a poor or even indifferent attitude towards women within rugby league, it could be because there are simply not enough of us around.
It is important to draw a distinction here between football clubs and football departments. In my sixteen years experience with rugby league clubs I’ve known a great number of women who work in the ‘front office’ of the club – marketing, sponsorship, membership and match day experience, for example. But within the football departments – the players, coaches, medical, strength and conditioning staff – in my experience the number of female staff tends to be much lower. Not zero, but very low.
So for all intents and purposes, the space in which players operate tends to be male-dominated. Which is problematic.
These guys spend all day mostly with other men; working with other men, reporting to other men, in some cases competing with other men.
Often they have come to this industry straight out of high school, maybe even an all-male school, so they have literally never had a female peer or a female boss. They have never had to compete with a woman for anything.
Which is why we are in desperate need of women in football departments and in management. Specifically female trainers, performance staff, referees, coaches, managers, CEOs and board members. We need more women present in the gym, in team reviews, on the sidelines, in boardrooms and on touring buses.
We need this group of young men to understand that women are a vital component of any functional workplace, that they are more than just your mothers, or your sisters, or your potential romantic conquests.
Women need to be not only humanized, but bestowed with intrinsic value that is not relative to the amount of weight they can squat or bench press.
Players need to be shown that the inclusion of women in any environment is one that will enrich the workings of the team. Multiple and diverse viewpoints on any issue can only be beneficial, we know this. #BalanceforBetter, as is the campaign theme for International Women’s Day this year.
Challengers to this school of thought will point to the fact that there are few women in football departments because rugby league has long been considered the domain of men so there are fewer women applying for the roles in the first place. And when they do, they may not have been afforded the vast experience that their male counterparts have, and their CV is likely to reflect this discrepancy. It is a vicious cycle.
So how do we resolve that?
A mandatory quota system for female staff in football departments might work.
Whilst the merits of quotas have been robustly debated in both the corporate and political spheres, they are already an accepted aspect of rugby league. For example, UK Super League teams are only allowed to register five overseas players at any one time, presumably to protect the homegrown talent pool of the game in the UK, and this is accepted as part and parcel of the game internationally.
I fail to see how the enforcement of a female football staff quota should be seen as any less valuable or necessary.
It’s just one example of a change that could be made.
Plus we do need to approach this issue from the top down. The NRL have done a great job of creating a inclusion framework for the entire rugby league community, but one can’t help but wonder how long this attitude shift in the grassroots of rugby league will take to filter through to the highest, most visible level of professional rugby league in the NRL.
And we don’t really have time to wait. We need to do something. The situation has become pressing. As many have pointed out, there is brand damage being done to our game but what’s far worse is the potential for actual human damage.
Last week the NRL announced a forensic review into NRL culture, with particular regard to the treatment of women. This is welcome recognition that there are changes to be made. I look forward to the findings, and more importantly to a future where in rugby league we can be aspirational in this space, rather than standing around, scratching our collective heads.