CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION

After an NRL off-season replete with player misbehavior and serious accusations, we in the rugby league community have once again found ourselves in the murky debate as to how our game should treat proven perpetrators of violent crime.

Now, in the wake of domestic violence accusations against Cowboys player Ben Barba, both his club and the league have acted – swiftly and decisively. The Cowboys have torn up his one-year contract and the NRL have deregistered him as a professional rugby league player in Australia.

It’s an encouraging step in the right direction.

If the NRL can use this decision as the groundwork for an extensive policy for dealing with convicted violent offenders, then this precedent has the ability to act as deterrent to future would-be offenders. So it’s an integral part of the overall discussion.

But it is only one piece of the puzzle. This is a discussion that must be continued and considerably broadened.

As a case in point: it’s been heartening to see concern for Ben Barba’s partner and children filter through the media coverage of this story. Multiple commentators have raised concern for Ainslie Currie’s mental well-being as a result of the incident and the family’s financial well-being in the wake of the sudden termination of a household income stream.

Like many current and former NRL partners, I know what it’s like to depend solely on a partner’s income. It’s stressful enough when it comes time to renegotiate contracts that you’ve long known are expiring; I cannot imagine what it must be like to have the rug pulled out from under you in this abrupt manner.

This is an opportunity to broaden the conversation. Not only the conversation around what we can do now for Ainslie Currie and her children, but how we can continue to improve if we face this situation again in the future.

Here’s what might seem like a disconnected example: I have long believed that NRL players should have a fixed day off. A weekday, which is selected by the club at the start of the year, and remains the same week-in, week-out, regardless of whether it’s preseason, standard competition or finals.

Bear with me.

As it stands, NRL clubs dictate players’ week-to-week schedules within a few restrictions negotiated and set by the Rugby League Players Association. NRL clubs are not bound to provide their players (or their families) with a standard recurring day each week when they are guaranteed no commitments. They have days off, yes, but they float around and are different week-to-week.

So how would this make a real difference?

Firstly, it would force players to recognise that they must co-exist with many other working components of a functioning society, thus going some way to negating this unreasonable expectation that players’ families will simply be ‘on tap’ to pick up the slack of family-life and household management. It forces players to see their families and partners as people who deserve not only their time, but some semblance of certainty in their day-to-day lives.

To simplify: hey guys, there are other people in your world that need to be able to rely on you. We know people love footy and stuff but is it so high stakes that we must be on-call seven days a week in the event of an emergency meeting about a referee crackdown on playing the ball correctly?

Secondly, it gives players a better opportunity to plan for life after football. They could study, maybe even in an actual face-to-face setting where they venture out into the world, meet people from different backgrounds and generally get a small glimpse into how another section of society operates. They could use the time to commit to half a day of regular work experience – a much more appealing prospect to any employer, surely.

Crucially, a standard day off removes a huge barrier to partners of footballers with children having gainful employment. Under the current model, given the fluidity of players’ schedules, the level of childcare required to cover all of the possible scenarios for even having a part-time job, can be financially prohibitive. Couple that with the regular travel and the fact that many families have taken contracts in cities where they have no other family support, and it’s no surprise to me that most of the partners I’ve met either don’t work, or work in the gig economy. If we could just have one day of certainty, it would make some financial contribution or even financial independence seem that much more attainable.

And this is where it all ties together.

If players are given more realistic opportunities to work towards life after football, they’d be better equipped if football life ends abruptly, whatever the circumstances.

If partners are given time and space to earn something of a living, to create meaningful professional networks, then in these horrible situations, perhaps the financial stress at least might be somewhat alleviated.

But most importantly, if we can make big, cultural changes that communicate to everyone in the game that you must give something back to the people that support you endlessly in achieving your dreams, then perhaps it will go some way to creating an attitude shift towards partners, families and anyone outside of the rugby league sphere with regards to their intrinsic worth.

I know this might be fanciful and I know it assumes a lot of players’ and partners’ individual choices. And there is certainly no suggestion that giving players a Tuesday off will signal the end to our problems.

But it could make a difference. It is one of many relatively simple but fundamental changes that just might go some way to contributing to a better future for our game and everyone it involves. There are many more ideas out there, we just need to keep talking about it.

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THE RULES DON’T APPLY TO US

I have quite literally lost count of the number of NRL players who are currently accused of assaulting women over the years.

Until October this year, my husband Ryan (Hoffman) was an NRL player, and had been for 16 seasons. So as part of this community, it is particularly heartbreaking.

To be clear, from this point on, I refer to these incidents in general. No one specific. I have no interest in muddying the issue by quibbling over the facts of individual cases. The fact is, violence happens.

It is frightening, appalling, and as violence always is, utterly unacceptable.

And it needs to be said, this is not a football issue. Torn up contracts, missed training sessions and stalled careers all pale in comparison to the actual, human cost paid by victims of violence and abuse.

Unfortunately, allegations of violence against women by football players are nothing new and over time there has been much conjecture as to the root of the issue.

Some argue that rugby league is simply a microcosm of society, and that violence against women is present in society, therefore, it is present in rugby league. Add to this, the fact that rugby league is lousy with males of a certain age, and some even make the argument that if there is an over-representation of violence, it’s down to some skewed demographics.

But, whilst rugby league is one of the few industries laden with men between the ages of 18 and 35, it is also one of the few industries that address the issue of violence against women head-on.

In recent times, players have actually be made to attend training (during their paid working hours) where in a variety of creative and engaging ways, they are taught in no uncertain terms, that violence against women is never okay.

Sure, many professional workplaces have anti-discrimination and bullying training, but these are a bunch of blokes who are annually reminded specifically that violence, or any kind of abuse against women, is not acceptable.

Let me just say that again: it is someone’s job to sit down with groups of fully functioning adult human beings, and make sure they understand that it is wrong to hurt women.

It’s a sad state of affairs, but if it goes any way to helping protect at-risk women then I’m glad that this type of training exists.

That said, the existence of this training is the reason I don’t buy the whole, ‘it happens in the world so it happens in rugby league’ argument. This is a group of men who are privileged by education, when others are not. There is never any excuse, but it is particularly true here.

So why does it continue to happen?

There may never be an answer to that question, but I have some thoughts.

If there is one resounding frustration I have with rugby league, and professional sport in general, it’s that footballers and football clubs seem to abide by a different set of rules to the rest of us.

There are examples everywhere, some advantageous, some detrimental, some innocuous and some really, bloody serious.

Footballers don’t line up to get into nightclubs. Footballers don’t get sick leave, parental leave or public holidays. Footballers get to jump medical queues. Footballers are customarily encouraged (or not discouraged) to go out and drink to excess in a celebration of a job well done. In some cases, footballers don’t have to pay for their education. Or their shoes. Or their clothes. Or their cars. Footballers are subject to physical and mental working conditions that in any other workplace would be considered unsafe at best. Footballers play ‘pranks’ on one another in the workplace that are the textbook definition of harassment, whereas others in the real world have been disciplined for much, much less.

“Yeah, but that’s just footy, it’s different,” they say. For the forty-five-thousandth time.

The point is, in a variety of ways, rugby league – and particularly the playing group – has long been a space that only teeters on the cusp of professionalism and as a result, the normal rules – workplace, societal and otherwise – don’t always apply.

I am constantly comparing what I know of the footy club environment to the experience I’ve had in non-football workplaces and time and time again I get the same argument: “it’s apples and oranges.”

But should it be? For me, this constant, underlying message that professional sport is an island is highly problematic. Hey you with the professional rugby league career – you are not like everyone else, you are special, you are above the rules.

And perhaps, over time, this relentless elevation of footballers above others, this constant operation within a space that proudly compares to no other, communicates a subconscious message about obedience that in some outposts then becomes dangerously twisted: I know the rules, but they don’t apply to me. If I break the rules, there’ll be no real consequences.

It might be a long bow to draw. But to be fair, nothing else is working. Not education. Not punishment. Not that thing where you simply rely on people to do the right thing and then get on with your life. Something has to change.

Because when you consider this culture of nonconformity, within an industry that is fundamentally built on aggression, filled with young men whose needs are daily elevated above everyone around them, and where women are never – ever – seen as peers, then perhaps we start to get a sense of some of the factors that contribute to a much larger issue.

There is no easy fix here. This idolisation of sportspeople and pedestalling of their achievements is deeply ingrained not only in the industry itself but also in society’s obsession with it. This is not going to change any time soon.

But given the diabolical consequences that are being faced by women everywhere, both involved in the industry and beyond, it would be great to see NRL clubs backing up their anti-violence training with some changes to approach and therefore to the powerful subconscious messaging. Step up the professionalism. Stamp out the larrikin culture. Put women in positions of real power. Align your behavioural policies with those of the rest of professional Australia. Simply put, send the message – the rules absolutely apply to you too.