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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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?