Rugby League has an entrenched, serious, and dare we say it, intractable problem with rampant s-xual abuse and misogyny within its ranks.
This culture is exacerbated and enabled by alcohol and other drug abuse. The latest case involving a very high profile Manly Sea Eagles player who allegedly s-xually assaulted a 17-year-old female while under the influence of alcohol is but one example in the constant litany of assaults and violence propagated by League players. Given the depressing monotony of this abhorrent behaviour, it is time for radical change to be forced upon the “boyz” clubs.
The NRL has attempted to deal with the problems of s-xual abuse and misogyny in its ranks before. To much fanfare and back-slapping the NRL, in 2004, commissioned an academic, Catharine Lumby, to investigate the culture of the league and suggest ways to make players more aware of issues around gender, s-x and behaviour. This project and report, Playing by the Rules, was completed but has never been released by the NRL. The best you or I can read is a summary or fluffy press releases proclaiming its success. I have it on good authority from a source that has read the report that is says nothing we would not expect — the League has a culture of inappropriate attitudes and behaviours towards women.
The question is: why has the NRL not made this report public in its entirety? Why has it not outlined the much vaunted “interventions” and training workshops that it compels players to undertake? Is it because they are evidently not working, given that the abysmal behaviour of players is the same this year as last year, just as it was five, 10 and 30 years ago?
Lumby herself has come out in defence of the NRL and claims that it is society’s fault because violence against women occurs in all areas. Indeed this is true and, as Lumby notes, we must tackle the problem of violence in society at large. However, we cannot overlook the power and influence star athletes have in our society as role models — irrespective of the vexed problem of if they should be role-models or not in the first place.
In the marketed incarnation of sport that we have now, the star player is an icon, and when that icon abuses alcohol and attacks women, that sends a very powerful message of permission — irrespective of the fact that they may be charged, and if warranted, convicted. The cultural behaviours of alcoholism and misogyny are supported and propagated by this, which is why we must hold them to a strict standard of zero tolerance.
A fundamental problem for the NRL is the very lucrative sponsorship and advertising deals that it has with major alcohol brands, not to mention the role licensed social clubs play in supporting teams (through the twin problems of pokies and alcohol sales). The NRL is caught in a bind here — how can it in all conscience tell its players to not consume what the major sponsors spruik? How will these sponsors react to alcohol bans and a concerted effort from the NRL to reduce the culture of drinking? The obvious answer is that the NRL must cut its ties with the alcohol industry, just like it did with the other drug pushers — cigarette companies.
The “bloke” culture of the NRL must be completely broken — both within the organisation and clubs and in the media (yes, Footy Show, that means you). The organisation should begin a concerted campaign to include significant diversity in its coaching and administration ranks — no longer can the old player network stitch up the jobs. The club endorsed activities that encourage poor behaviour, such as boozy lunches, team retreats to Coffs Harbour and debauched celebration rituals, must stop. Any member of the NRL family should be sacked if the break the code of conduct. Lastly, the leadership, both of the NRL and within clubs, must set an example of appropriate behaviour, at all times.
The NRL has three choices: do nothing and disappear under the pressure from Union, Australian Rules and Soccer; have change forced upon them by the outraged public and politicians; or enact radical change themselves.
Obviously, change from within is the best answer — but will the misogynist blokes allow it?
Dr James Connor is a sociologist at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy who researches sport and drugs in sport.