Once more as the men of Rugby League grind forward into a new season certain individual blemishes have raised the ire of NRL CEO David Gallup, created hundreds more paragraphs of newsprint in the Sydney and Brisbane newspapers (AFL dominated state capitals have been fixated on the sleazy St Kilda teen sex scandal which falls outside the parameters and the care factor of this blog), and seen shuffling, mumbling man mountains talk about “Sorry for the embarrassment, apologies to the team, I’ll come through this as a better person…etc, etc”. For every sweeping back line movement that leads to a try from nowhere on the paddock, off field there is a matching incident of pissing against a shop facade in public. For every feel good moment of a team from Parramatta or South Sydney visiting the long term stay ward of a Children’s Hospital there is a matching time of shame as a Rugby League professional does something stupid and/or criminal under the influence of booze. Recent memories of players engaging a pet dog for moral oral sex provide uneasy shade for the recollection of last years premier’s victory (St George after a 31 year drought).
So the question has to be asked. What the fuck is going on with Rugby League players?
Now if I was a smug fan of aerial ping pong I’d make some derogatory comment somehow tying in the use of the scrum with homoeroticism to form such a cogent comment as “What do you expect from a game where 1 man tries to push two guy’s heads up three men’s arses.” Unfortunately for the well-funded game of AFL as mentioned it has its own cross to bear when it comes to the discerning morality of their players. Rugby Union aficionados could take the “What does one expect from the working rough house classes who haven’t been exposed to rugby, thuggery and buggery in the Great Public Schools?” Looking down your nose at the likes of Anthony Watmough whilst sipping a Penfolds Grange and watching the Waratahs under perform from a corporate box is not sound starting point, as certain union types have been known to engage in all manner of stupid anti-social behaviour (perhaps rooted in the ‘thuggery, buggery and rugby’ origins of the code in the great private schools). The round ball game both world wide and domestically has had its shares of ups and down when it comes to the moral behaviour of its players. One of the greatest footballers this nation has even seen wear a Socceroos jersey imploded thanks to a heady cocktail of too much money and cocaine (thankfully Mark Bosnich has turned things around mightily since those dark days). Thus it would be hard put for any advocate of the rival codes to take a swipe at the likes of Mark Gasnier, Todd Carney, Benji Marshall and others who have fallen from grace thanks to off-field antics.
However Rugby League in the recent professional era has seen some spectacularly stupid and avoidable fuck-ups that go beyond the “Oh it was just a young fella doing something silly” excuse. Going through the motions of having a dog lick the male genitive organ, allowing accusations of rape or sexual harassment to emerge, speeding while under the influence of alcohol seems to be de rigeur with the current stars of the NRL, and whilst it isn’t hurting the sport’s appeal to its existing fans it’s certainly impeding its progress beyond the relatively small niche it holds in Australian sporting culture.
The way I see it there are five basic reasons why we see Rugby League players engaged in the kind of activities only a soap opera scriptwriter or an anonymous author of a Penthouse Forum letter would find appealing, and concomitant with that the increased perception of Rugby League being a sport played by neanderthals. With apologies to the great writers of the game such as Ray Chesterton, Alan ‘Clarko’ Clarkson and Peter Frilingos here are my observations:
1. The Rugby League Professional is Inherently Undereducated
Let’s face it, when was the last time you heard of an exciting five eighth talent packing down with the North Queensland Cowboys having just finished a dissertation on the symbolism of food in Marcel Proust’s ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’. Thanks to the exacting standards of a sport that is built around generally large and fit youths becoming even larger and fitter men who run at each other whilst their opponents try to bring them down to the ground the idea of academic excellence is generally seen as useful as membership to the now defunct Adelaide Rams Super League team. Cognitive skills and analytical thought rarely goes beyond counting to 6 tackles or remembering what 10 metres means. Now it would be fair to say that universities are no purely moral breeding grounds for intelligent and ethical young men to flourish, however when the basic constituency of the league’s playing cadre is general unable to think beyond the next tackle, the next weight session, the next promo appearance don’t be surprised if they think that drinking to excess then getting into a car is a good idea. The brain that is used to working out how to sell the dummy or make sure the sliding defence is enforced seems to find it incapable to comprehend the ethical dilemmas of letting a canine nibble at a penis. Admittedly you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to play rugby league nor did previous generations of league players demonstrate an acuity for higher academic achievement. However the gray matter was occupied by not just tackle counts and training times, which leads me onto my second point…
2. The Professional NRL Player Needs a Trade
Before the advent of huge dollars in the game (arguably starting from the Super League wars of the 1990s) it was more common than not for a player to have a day job or secondary occupation that kept them busy between hitting the tackle bags, fronting up to the judiciary on a Tuesday night or packing down in a mid-week Amco Cup game at Leichhardt Oval. There was a famous link between the NSW constabulary and the ranks of Sydney football clubs such as St George, with both Craig Young and Pat Jarvis taking off the big red V then donning a copper’s uniform when the whistle blew full time. From cleaners to sparkies, carpenters to brickies, publicans and club concierges the league player of past generations when elevated to the highest levels usually still had a day job to go to. This meant that they weren’t continually submerged in a footballing culture where everything was about being physical and matey amongst a group of men who only had one reason being together. The violence of the weekend game may have exploded with just as much energy and excitement as it does now for the player of yesteryear, but come Monday they had to go back to being the ditch digger, the electrician, the car salesman. Being responsible for both themselves and their non-footy careers gave the previous generation of players a reason not to act like a fuckwit in the general public. Parallel to this was the lack of support or cover given by the club machinery. In a time when the only person who spoke to Rex Mossop after ‘The Big League’ game of the week or had to deal with the club’s fans at an open day was either the coach or team captain, the average pre-1990s Rugby League player understood that no one would massage the ego nor the message of a public stuff up. You had to toe the line or make damn sure you kept your dirty linen behind closed doors because no one but you would be there to face the music if the shit came down. Which leads to…
3. The Growing Intrusiveness of the Media
Parallel to the growth of the bumbling rock ape image of the NRL professional is the ferocious appetite for ‘news’ from a more avaricious, utterly fragmented media. In today’s environment it’s not going to be Ron Casey, Keith Barnes or Frank Hyde who will alone talk about what has happened with player X or player Y. Nowadays everyone from pay TV sport channels to shock jocks, online observers (including myself perhaps) and politicians, feminist academics and Hollywood movie stars need to find some kind of byline from the game to get their audience focused on their point of view about the game. In the 70s and 80s game reports in the back of The Sun or Daily Telegraph, weekend broadcasts with Rex Mossop or the ABC non-commercial coverage, or ‘Rugby League Week’ and ‘The Big League’ were the main purveyors of rugby league related stories. Reporters and journalists would be welcomed into the change sheds before and after the game, possibly thanks to being a recent club mate not that long ago and hence aware of the player’s dynamics and motivations. Articles and broadcasts focused on how many tries were scored, who got through the most tackles, how many weeks suspension will Les Boyd get for this week’s hit.
Now the media circus is both fed and feeds on almost every issue away from the game it can, to fill in the airwaves, the internet bandwidth and the newspaper columns . Forget the days when a rugby league player would only need to worry about the radio pundit or the newshound sniffing around because he’d turned in a shocker against the Newtown Jets. Nowadays through a toxic combination of self or managed promotion with a 24 hours sports news cycle the professional NRL player has to demonstrate the same media-savvy capability as a politician or a Hollywood starlet. When you get caught short taking a piss against a shop front, when you have your mobile phonecall telling a female acquaintence to ‘fire up bitch’, when you find out that you and your team mates may have been associated with sexual assault its most likely not emerging thanks to the traditional writers and broadcasters of the game. Now it’s all being discovered, dissected, disdained and distributed by a rapacious media that doesn’t give jack shit about what it means to you the Rugby League player. It certainly means that the behaviour of the players are more scrutinised than before but unfortunately it has come at the cost of making a generally media-naive person both protagonist in and victim of some fairly heinous news stories.
4. The Rootless Factor
Rugby League for almost all of its history in NSW was a community game. If you were born in Hurstville you played with St George. Kids who grew up at the foot of the Blue Mountains became chocolate soldiers with the Penrith Panthers logo over their left chest. If you started with Balmain in Jersey Glegg or SG Ball you might have Keith Barnes come around to give you some pointers on how to take a conversion kick, then years later when you had your testimonial dinner at the Rozelle club house for being a Tiger’s man through and through Keith might pop in again to share a cold schooner with you.
Sad to say those halcyon days are dead and buried, sold like the contract for a Melbourne Storm player. Today’s NRL professional will almost inevitably place fiscal need and ego above community loyalty. It’s fair enough that when the game has become more focused on the dollar then the player does too. However when over commercialization means that the player doesn’t live in the area he supposedly represents on the footy paddock, when his manager is the only conduit between the club’s higher ups, when he is seen as a tool to be exploited by the club owners to sell jumpers, souvenirs and assorted club paraphernalia then the disconnect has repercussions in the wider community. Why bother if you hit on a teenage girl with an abnormally high interest in Bacardi Breezers when you are passing through town as part of some money-spinning bandwagon. How can you respect the heritage and honour bound in with wearing the coachwood and myrtle, the big red V, the tricolours, or the gold and blue when next week, month or year you’ll be sold as part of a salary cap deal that takes you to or away from a community that has no knowledge of the game or of you. The humble journeyman of rugby league (such as a Phil Blake) has become the much-hyped swaggering cash cow human headline such as Greg Inglis or Willie Mason. How can we expect these rootless professionals who have a coterie of fiscally integrated hangers on, advisor, managers, PR gurus and club executives to engage with the public like an average person when their very circumstances mean they aren’t connected to their suburb or town like before? The modern game actively encourages professional players to live outside their community norms, and then normal community reacts harshly when we see the difference between the club hero and the itinerant mercenary with a bad bladder or the need for frequent sex and booze sessions.
5. Rugby League is a Brutal Man’s Game
At the risk of sounding politically correct and destroying some of the myths created around the sport’s PR spin aimed at bringing in sponsors and the female audience, Rugby League is based on some fairly base masculine appetites. The need for competition, the need for mateship, the need for participating in or watching violence, the need for ego boosting and sexual satisfaction, the need to be ‘one of the guys’ and piss higher and harder against the wall than your associates. It is a brutal game that can cause life changing injuries and force young men to retire from their sport scarred and debilitated. Unlike the AFL which has a more athletic openness to its on field violence, Rugby Union which labours under the stop start nature of the game and soccer which is supposedly non-contact, the league is a fast, high energy collision of muscle and sinew where you are more likely to leave the ground concussed than win a man of the match award. It is an undeniable fact that when watching the game fans are just as excited to see a big hit, or revel in some great fisticuffs as they are about free flowing backlines scoring tries.
This has been a truth of the game since Dally Messenger first picked up a Steeden. However unlike earlier eras where the violence of the game was more or less kept on the pitch, today’s sensibilities and media coverage means that the more crude collisions and game play has been suppressed. Coat hangers and squirrel grips have become a rarity, and with the increase of the gap between attack and defence from 5 to 10 metres the brawling prop has almost been legislated out of existence. Scrums are no longer a seething mess of hidden uppercuts and shin-barking kicks; they are now a farce where the ball comes out quicker than it goes into the second row. In turn this has led to the same generic man who in previous generations could work out his aggression on the paddock left with a strange paradox off the field. He is expected to play like a warrior and hit up hard and often whilst showing great athleticism, yet he can’t show those same hard-wired energies in his non-football environment.
Okay, not all modern footballers are unthinking brawlers on the prowl after the game for a vicarious thrill to appease their cro-magnon tendencies. However there are far too many who can’t understand that old adage of what happens out on the ground stays on the ground. The same mentality that was behind John Hopate’s date-finger work a few years back has now become a part of the thinking that leads to women being mauled sexually in social situations. The traditional softening up period is a relic the NRL doesn’t like to see revived, and yet that pent up aggression from the game has to go somewhere, including hitting people outside a McDonalds in the wee small hours. Violent, competitive, physical men can;t become SNAGs overnight, contrary to the essential spirit of the game they play. No one should be in shock, making exclamations of disgust about so-called footy role models when their activities and their personalities are determined by a sport that encourages intensely physical brutality, and then confuses the issue by spinning the game as a feast of athletic prowess. Let’s get real about rugby league players; they are modern gladiators who have pain and violence as constant companions on the field. Expecting them to be utterly different off the ground is well nigh impossible.
When all is said and done I love Rugby League as a sport. It is not supposed to be politically correct, nor is its supposed to be a socially acceptable academic pursuit which conforms to some idealized world where there is no violence, no drunkenness, no sexual dysfunction, no ridiculous machismo, no greed and no public aggrandizement. It is supposed to be about two teams of 13 men running at each other for 80 minutes and being paid arguably more money than they deserve for the dubious privilege. It is supposed to be about club and community, the big hits and the amazing tries. It’s supposed to be about winning thanks to your team of big, quick and well-trained bastards doing what the opposition’s team of big, quick and well-trained bastards couldn’t. It’s not about being role models. It’s not about expecting players to always understand the rights and wrongs of what they do. It’s not about becoming some kind of pure superfit SNAG who is kind to small children, animals and old ladies. Rugby League morality should only be validated on the field and in play; once the boots are unlaced and the jersey is changed for street clothes the professional of today has lost the plot that possibly we have scripted unrealistically for them. Homo Rugbyleaguensis is at heart a fairly simple man who has lost the way to cope with what modern society expects of him…is it any wonder that betting scandals, public urinating, unwelcome groping of female’s privates, boozing and mock-bestiality has emerged?