THE RULES DON’T APPLY TO US

The first draft of this post began with a count of the number of NRL players currently accused of assaulting women. But the number kept increasing and then I literally lost track. It is 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.

There really are no words to express the heartache and the horror.

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.

(Setting aside the inalienable truth that in every case, the individual inflicting the violence is at fault, without excuse and one hundred percent personally responsible for his actions. I’m not here to offer excuses.)

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 pretty 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, most 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.

Further, 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 then?

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

(A constant stream of them, actually. Every damn day. Such is the extent of my sadness on the issue. The following is just one train of them.)

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.

For example, at times Hoff has regaled me with stories of ‘jokes’ in his workplace that honestly could be deleted scenes from Mean Girls. When pushed, he admits that in some ways, these pranks could perhaps be misconstrued as workplace bullying. No Hoff, no perhaps about it. These pranks are textbook examples of workplace bullying and in the real world people have been disciplined and sacked over much, much less.

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

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, harassment at worst.

The point is, in a variety of ways, rugby league – 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’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve challenged Hoff on a long-held custom of rugby league, that to the uninitiated seems ludicrous, and he’s responded: “it’s a bit different for us.” Which is just a nicer way of saying, “the rules don’t apply to us, we’re special.”

I am constantly comparing Hoff’s working environment to the experience I’ve had in a variety of non-football workplaces and time and time again I get the same response: “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.

This 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. So 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 subconscious messaging. Step up the professionalism. Stamp out the larrikin culture. Put women in positions of power. Align your behavioural policies with those of the rest of corporate Australia. Simply put, send the message – the rules absolutely apply to you too.

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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?