At its annual golf day several years ago, a leading NRL club invited players, sponsors, coterie members, officials and sundry media types along to farewell the recently completed season.

But this was a golf day with a peculiarly rugby league twist: topless models handed out cans of beer to the golfers; on one hole, women dressed only in bikinis bent over and put teepegs in the turf, while standing astride players who had been instructed to lie on their backs on the ground.

It’s unlikely the golfers were expecting that sort of hospitality, or view, when they turned up to the event. It did, after all, involve one of Australia’s leading sporting clubs, and was being held at a top-notch resort course. And, of course, this was the 21st century.

Even by rugby league standards, the “entertainment” was considered by many to be overdoing the concept of looking after your sponsors. The club’s marketing people, the brains behind the idea of topless models and bikini-clad caddies, were told in no uncertain terms that they should ditch the soft porn and come up with something more appropriate for the following year.

The story is told in light of the Matthew Johns-group sex saga, when he and several other Cronulla players had sex with a 19-year-old woman at a Christchurch hotel in 2002, which has once again trained the spotlight on rugby league, and its very idiosyncratic, working man’s culture.

While the rest of the sporting world has moved, at differing speeds, with the times, league is starring in its very own episode of Life On Mars, stuck in a time-warp from 35 years ago.

Perhaps that is not surprising. League could well be the toughest sport of all to play. It is brutal, almost gladiatorial, and requires of its combatants enormous courage. It follows then, that the players who make it to the elite level are very tough, macho, unreconstructed blokes. That’s not to say they’re all blockheads, because they’re not, but neither do many of them get manicures, have their poodles shampooed or their kaftans dry-cleaned. Nor do they have a hissy-fit when they can’t find their blowdryer.

Roy Masters, the former NRL coach and now Fairfax sportswriter, says league players exist in that “golden triangle” where they have celebrity status, a lot of money and too much time on their hands. In his 2006 book, Bad Boys, Masters writes frankly about how group sex was a way to create closer bonds between teammates.

As well as bringing into focus that culture, the Johns affair also raises questions about the sometimes murky relationship between sportswriters and their sport.

According to The Australian yesterday, Channel Nine News sports reporter Danny Weidler has admitted he has known about the Johns story for years “but didn’t consider reporting it”.

The logical assumption is that the TV newshound did not want to rock the boat at Nine by outing one of his network colleagues and, presumably, mates. Weidler does pieces for Nine’s Footy Show, of which Johns (aka Reg Reagan) is the star. Either that, or Weidler’s news judgment needs a major recalibration.

This is how the symbiotic relationship sometimes works between sports reporter and athlete. It’s not just “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”, but “I’ll protect your back if you give me some good stories in return”.

Those journalists who upset this delicate ecosystem by being hyper-critical of players can expect to be cold-shouldered, or worse.

In 1990, the American sports reporter Lisa Olsen, while covering the football beat for the Boston Herald, was sexually harassed by New England Patriots football players in the team’s locker room. Olson sued the National Football League and the players involved were punished, but she became such a pariah in Boston — her tyres were slashed, she received hate mail and death threats and was the victim of burglaries — that she wasn’t just frozen out, she was driven out — of town.

Olson was eventually transferred to Sydney by the Boston Herald’s then owner, News Corporation, where she worked for The Daily Telegraph and then the Sydney Morning Herald.

So who else knew about the Christchurch gang-bang? Just Weidler? The incident gives rise to suspicions out there in readerland that journalism is not the fearless trade its practitioners would love to have us believe. That it is sometimes a closed shop, where contacts are protected, deals are done and truth in reporting is just an abstract concept spoken about in journalism school lecture theatres.

Charles Happell is a former sports editor at The Age

Peter Fray

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