A TALE OF TWO HEADLINES

I love the rugby league media at this time of year. Like your local Westfield setting up their Chrissy decorations on 1 November, you can set your watch by the stories that are bound to pop up.

“Such and such player returns to training in career-best fitness.”

“Some other player spends off-season doing something beneficial for society, hooray for them.”

“Some other player still spends off-season doing something of the utmost detriment to society, tut, tut.”

“Every second club vows to put players through the MOST DIABOLICAL VOMIT-INDUCING PRE-SEASON EVER IN THE QUEST FOR ON-FIELD GREATNESS.”

Cool, cool, sure they are.

In an ever-evolving world it’s so nice that some things never change. It’s the print media equivalent of your dad’s Sunday roast.

That said, I was struck by two side-by-side headlines on the Daily Telegraph website this week:

Eels rebuild begins in the bush” and “Bulldogs hire woman to look after players, WAGs.

The Eels headline is your bog-standard ‘clubs going to the ends of the Earth’ (or in this case, Armidale) to gain that elusive edge over their opponents.

Evidently, the Parramatta roster spent six days in country New South Wales docking livestock (of their pay? What does that even mean?), fencing, lifting weights, meditating, doing yoga and generally doing rugby league’s version of a corporate love-in. Without the apricot danishes and filter coffee at morning tea.

You’ve got to give Parramatta points for creativity and the variety of activities. Whether these points will translate to actual on-field points remains to be seen, but best of luck to them.

The second, Bulldogs headline was a little more interesting.

On the one hand, “Bulldogs hire woman to look after players, WAGs” is very much in the mold of rugby league journalism. I cannot for the life of me work out why the new recruit’s gender was deemed relevant enough to take up valuable headline real estate but this is nothing new.

Headline semantics aside, the content of this article was intriguing. If you missed it, the Bulldogs have hired a Player Engagement Coordinator, whose job will be to look after the welfare of players and their families including match-day support and housing assistance, for example.

Well, what a bloody great move this is. As a long-time proponent of better welfare support for the families of players and staff involved in professional rugby league, I have long believed that this type of role, and an associated framework, should be a critical part of any club. NRL-funded, maybe even.

Now, I know this is a controversial stance. Mainstream media coverage of so-called WAGs going back to Posh Spice and her posse at the 2006 soccer World Cup has done no favours to the stereotype of what it means to be involved in professional sport.

Combine this with our universal tendency to curate images of the best version of our lives on social media and it would be easy to assume that players and their families live a charmed and glamorous life.

And in some cases, I guess that’s true. Hell, even I’ve had the occasional sneak-peek of this life myself.

But I’m acutely aware that this life, even flashes of it, is only available to the select few. In most cases, it’s just bloody hard work.

It’s regular upheaval of your family to move interstate and overseas, not to mention the personal career disruption that comes with that. It’s the expectation that your weekends will be built around attendance at football games and support of your significant other, even when you’d rather spend it playing board-games and watching DVDs with your kids. It’s the stress and anxiety at said football games, of having to sit there week after week, year after year, watching your boyfriend, then husband, then the father of your children, put himself in harms way, tackle after tackle, all for the sake of entertainment. It’s the away games, the tours, the representative camps and pre-season love-ins, all spent completely alone, or single parenting, all in the name of on-field success.

And it’s this last point that got me thinking about these two headlines and their relevance to one another.

In one case, you’ve got the Eels, treading that tried and tested path of taking the players away, isolating them from their families and day-to-day lives, in an effort to solidify their commitment to each other and improve their on-field performance.

I have always been frustrated by these exercises because as someone who has been routinely left behind, it ultimately makes you feel like a distraction. Like your partner absolutely has to go away because they couldn’t possibly perform in optimum condition if he has to come home to you and your kids every night. It’s a wildly demoralising feeling, especially when there seems to be so many unavoidable opportunities throughout the season for players and staff to spend time together and bond away from their families.

But it’s not a new approach and I’m certainly not taking a stab at the Eels for trying it. I’d hazard a guess that almost every NRL club will undertake a similar exercise between now and the beginning of the 2019 season, the Bulldogs included maybe.

But what the Bulldogs are also doing, in my view, goes some way to counter-balancing this tendency that clubs have to overlook the needs of the player with regards to their role in their family. They are sending a powerful message that I believe says: We recognise the inherent expectation that families actively support their players and football staff and we would like to do something to mitigate the stress caused by this expectation.

Or… maybe the whole thing is just a knee-jerk reaction to the Mad Monday bar nudity debacle and I’ve completely romanticised it because my brain is a bit broken from years of said stress and expectation. Who knows? It’s a coin toss.

Interestingly though, the final line of the Bulldogs article says, “Anecdotally, players who have a content personal and family life are more likely to perform better on the field.”

And isn’t that just food for thought?

It’s almost a though when you recognise that a player is a person who has commitments outside of winning football games, like a family, an education, or a civic duty, that it increases his self-worth. It’s almost as though it sends the message that you are worth something other than your ability to win football games and your total value to the world is not contingent on your on-field success. It’s almost as though this inherent self-worth helps to relieve the stress of week-to-week perfection and creates a more relaxed headspace from which to perform. It’s almost as though players that are allowed to have time with their families and space from rugby league are refreshed from the exercise. It’s almost as though when we stop treating players as though they have no responsibilities in this world other than to score the try or make the tackle, that we create better people who are not so pre-disposed to general dirt-baggery.

Huh. Who knew?

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JACKETS: BOTH THE WHISKEY AND LITERAL KIND

Here’s the thing about football: I’ve never…. really…. got it. If you’ve ever read any of my previous blogs you’ll know that I’ve spent a good portion of my typed words talking about football, specifically, rugby league, so this may come as some surprise. Permit me to explain.

I am not an athlete. I have never been interested in playing sport. I avoided it at all costs. And I have always found the experience of not being athletic to be an alienating one, which I assume is not uncommon. It could be why so many people gravitate to sport as spectators. Those who can’t do….watch?

As I kid I bonded with my dad over a love of the Melbourne Demons (Aussie Rules, for those requiring translation). But looking back, I think my love of that experience was more about time with my family. My cousins were all Dees supporters too and I have some really fond memories watching games together. Aside from that, (and one particularly striking nude photo of Stephen Tingay in the Herald Sun circa 2000), I don’t have many of memories of the specifics. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t about an appreciation of the sport itself.

stephen tingay
Lived on my bedroom wall until exposure from the sun over many years faded it away.

Fast forward to 2003 when I meet Hoff, who was a rugby league player and had never dreamt of being anything else. The only one more surprised than me that I have ended up married to a professional athlete would probably be childhood me. Or maybe my mum.

In those early days, I was well and truly a rugby league convert. I went to every game, I devoured every news story and I made a concerted effort to understand the sport and all its nuances.

But, as Hoff and I grew more and more serious, my relationship with sport became more and more problematic. Rugby league, went from being “that thing we do on the weekends”, to “that thing that controls our lives, determines where we live, what we do most days and our livelihood”. Sixteen years of being involved at a personal level is enough to give anyone a slightly different viewpoint, I think, particularly for someone like me who never really understood it in the first place.

All that said, I had an absolute ball at Monday Night Football in Green Bay. Go figure.

packers

We went to Green Bay with the sole purpose of attending a Green Bay Packers home game. It was a bucket list item for Hoff and far be it from me to stand in the way of lifelong dreams.

We kicked off the experience with a tailgate event, which started a couple of hours before the game. It was incredible. So many people, so much food, so many drinks and not a shot measurer in sight. Eek.

Honestly, these people know how to do football. There were people everywhere and such a joyous vibe about the place, that it was hard not to be excited (even though I could only name one player on the whole team and even then only when I was standing behind Hoff wearing his jersey with said name on it.)

Tailgate

The attire was a site to behold too. Cheese wedge hats (which had me lamenting the finite space in my suitcase), green and yellow pinstripe suits and so many Packers jerseys that I was beginning to think they were compulsory town uniform. From the minute we got up that morning we barely saw a person – working in a professional capacity or not – who was not wearing one.

IMG_3514 copy
Hoff insisted on wearing his as soon as he purchased it at 10 o’clock in the morning

And holy hell was it cold. We’d been keeping an eye on the weather in the lead up to our trip and feeling grateful that it wasn’t looking too bad, then the day after we arrived a cold front blew through the mid-west and knocked about fifteen degrees Celsius off the mercury overnight. We’ve been cold ever since. Green Bay was absolutely no exception. I was so cold that I purchased a lovely pair of gloves, which I think really bring out the colour in my eyes.

gloves

I also chose to combat the cold by donning my ‘whiskey jacket’, which actually proved to be pretty effective (thank goodness for Americans and their generous pours). Also, thank goodness for the 80,000-odd other people who attended this game. It made for a cozy walk to the stadium and a good amount of body heat once we were there.

(I was less excited about the number of people at the game when I went to the loo at one point and genuinely got lost on my way back to my seat. Dammit, Hoffman, if there’s one sports-related thing you’re supposed to be good at after 16 years of professional fandom then stadium navigation should really be it.)

It was a good game too, I’m told. I can read a scoreboard and so obviously I know that the Packers won, but that’s about the sum total of my understanding of how it all went down. You get to yell ‘First Down’ every now and again, which has something to do with yards gained, but as I’m not exactly sure what a yard is either that doesn’t really help me much. Metric all the way, baby.

So even though I am a bit of a sportaphobe, I’ll always be grateful for having had this once in a lifetime experience. Not only was it all kinds of fun, I got to forget all my hang-ups about sport and just be a fan. (Coldest, least knowledgeable fan ever, but a fan just the same).

STILL

When Ryan injured himself in the 75th minute of the Cronulla game three weeks ago, I must admit, I wasn’t watching.

I was distracted by our youngest who was cutting laps of the Olympic Park Room with one of the other littlies. I was just thinking to myself how cute the pair looked in their matching jerseys and tutus when Will Chambers’ lovely wife, Bianca, caught my eye and gestured worriedly towards the field.

The next minute my phone was ringing and I was asked to come down to the sheds. I’ve been around long enough to know that this is never a good sign, but I gathered my things and my offspring and off we went.

By the time I got down to the sheds the game had ended, we’d lost, and the mood was tense. I was ushered in to see Ryan lying on a massage table, and he was completely beside himself. He was in shock and devastated and he was all but sure that he’d just played the last game of his career.

I didn’t know what to do, what to say, and I was wearing light grey so I didn’t want to get in too close for a decent cuddle because, you know, sweat and grass stains.

One-by-one, his teammates snuck out of what I’m sure was a right dressing down to check on him. Most just shook their heads and gave him a cuddle or a pat on the head and I don’t think I’ve ever felt such palpable love and care for a person in my whole life.

We sat in silence as Ryan tried to gather himself. After a little while I leant in and whispered, “This is a bit like witnessing your own open casket, isn’t it?”

Finally a smile. The tiniest of laughs. Supposedly it’s the best medicine.

The point is, in that moment, it felt like the end. And two days later when a scan confirmed that he had ruptured a tendon, we were even more convinced that Ryan’s career was probably over. We were philosophical, but realistic.

In these moments, you might assume that the tendency is to reflect. To be grateful for the career that he’s had. And you’d be absolutely right, he has had an amazing career. So amazing and so well-documented, in fact, that I don’t need to detail the highlights here. Just Google it, as is my 5-year-old’s answer for everything.

But what I will say is this: at some unspecified point in the next 5 weeks, Ryan’s career will end. He will cease to be a rugby league player. But he’ll still be Ryan.

He’ll still be the chivalrous gentleman who held open doors for me and stole my heart away 15-odd years ago. He’ll still be my partner-in-crime in seeing the world and packing as much into life as we possibly can. He’ll still be the father of two adorable children who plays board games and tackles and who reads bedtime stories with funny voices and everything. He’ll still be the friend who’s there with a text or a phone call when times are both happy and horrible. He’ll still be the big brother who gives his sisters hell, but who brags about their achievements to anyone who’ll listen the moment they’re not around. He’ll still be the son who loves going to visit his folks so much, that he becomes like a giddy schoolboy when the time comes to get on the plane.

He’ll still care desperately about this game. He was never going to be a player who woke up one day and thought, “I can’t do this anymore,” because I firmly believe he would’ve gone on forever if somehow the passing of time on the human body would allow.

I also believe that he’ll be an even better administrator than he was player because there’s no expiry date this time. His love for the game is real and it’s selfless and I know he’ll thrive in having the ability to contribute to its future.

The point is, Ryan is more than what he does. In fact, each and every one of these boys are more than what they do. Their value and their identity is not dictated by what it says on their LinkedIn profile, it’s within them and I think a player’s retirement is a perfect time to remember that.

So to my lovely husband, well done on an incredible career. It’s been quite the ride. But even bigger congratulations on being an excellent human being. One of my all time favourite human beings, actually. You’ll never be able to retire from that.

HUMAN

Hi there, Mel Hoffman here, Ryan’s wife. If you’re new to the Storm, I used to write a blog for the website but then I had babies and my brain forgot how to multitask and also how to write words good and stuff.

But I’m finished having babies now so I’m back for a bit of a cameo, the topic of which is: Melbourne Storm.

Yikes. Where to start?

The Storm is an organisation that has a reputation. Of success, professionalism, tenacity, innovation, and occasionally, of drama. It got me to thinking, what can I say about the Melbourne Storm? What is this club to me personally? The answer was simple. This club is human. Or more specifically, a bunch of humans. Always has been, always will be.

The problem is our players can seem superhuman because of what they do. Which may trick us into believing that they are not like you and me, but let me assure you, it’s just the torso that looks like a GI Joe doll. Everything else is absolutely human – unique, vulnerable, fallible and full of dreams, desires, fears and regrets.

They come with a human package – a family. Partners, children, mums, dads, sisters, brothers, you name it. These people play a critical role in the decisions they make, too. For example, when I read negative feedback about a player choosing to leave a club I am struck by this tendency we have to ignore the human side of our players. I defy any person, faced with a major career decision, to honestly say that they would put the interests of their colleagues and public stakeholders ahead of the interests of their own family. It doesn’t happen, and neither should it.

Speaking of negative feedback, I admire the Melbourne Storm approach to rise above it and to never to fight back because supposedly, in this brave new world of unfettered and relentless public opinion, you cannot win. Personally, I’m not sure I’m ready to admit defeat. I’ve thought a lot about this over the years and I have come up with one semblance of a plan: we could start a rugby league fan fiction society. Right? That way, when certain members of the public and media feel the need to write fanciful stories, at least there’ll be an appropriate forum for it.

There is a tendency for players to insist that things said by journalists and in social media do not affect them, which is only sometimes the truth. There are times when they are affected and so is their whole family unit. They might be sending their children off to school, anxious about whether they will get a hard time about the latest story in the news. They might be dodging phone calls from Great Aunty Doris because they just can’t explain to any more elderly relatives that the internet lies sometimes. Now I know what you’re thinking – they signed up for this. It comes with the territory. But their partners didn’t. Their children didn’t. Great Aunty Doris definitely didn’t. They are simply part and parcel of the player as a human.

Fortunately for us as members of the Melbourne Storm family, this is a club that recognises this humanity and understands the need for players and their families to have a community. Especially seeing as we’re so often displaced from our family, due to the satellite nature of this club. I’m often asked whether we’re a close group and the short answer is yes. We’re people, with shared interests, shared joys and shared, unique anxieties so of course we gravitate to each other for camaraderie and friendship. Are we all best friends, going on weekend shopping trips, singing and dancing Brady-Bunch-style on the escalators at the local Westfield? Nup. Not even close. We’re different. We all have different personalities, different approaches to being a part of football and we all have different responsibilities and concerns away from football. But we’re there for each other when we need to be and we recognise the need to band together for the sake of the team’s success.

So say what you will about the Melbourne Storm, the reputation, the aura, the records and the history books. From where I sit, all this was created by the humans that have passed through its doors and these humans continue to be the very best and most valuable thing about it.

All that said, we do need to acknowledge player press conference appearances. I’m 95% those dudes are humanoid droids. Nobody actually uses that many of the same football clichés in everyday speech. Hopefully they get their software updated sometime soon.