YOU couldn’t make it up, could you?
The National Rugby League is now run by a slick new commission, has earned itself $1.025 billion in television rights and has its sights set on a salary cap of $7 million by 2017.
Yet as we prepare to burst into this ‘brave new world’ on Thursday with the opening of the new season, our players are under investigation for taking drugs, fixing matches and fraternising with underworld figures.
And our number one drawcard is out of the game indefinitely after joining a drinking club called the “Epic Bender Crew” and telling a trainer days before he was due to be the public face of the new season “I don’t want to play footy anymore”.
As an outsider coming into our game, new NRL CEO David Smith must be already scratching his head about what he’s taken on. (He is also scratching his head over the names of some of our biggest stars but I promise not to mention that again, David).
No matter how had hard you scrub the face of rugby league with solvol, it never ceases to be a soap opera.
Have a think about it; is rugby league on the back of the papers just because it is the most popular sport in NSW and Queensland?
That plays a big role in it but where else to we get our fix of public feuds, boardroom intrigue, salary cap cheating (two championships stripped from a club, furchisakes), rebel leagues, selection drama, player misbehaviour and – these days – social media gaffes?
You can bring in all the artifices you like, from the salary cap to media training and rookie camps, but rugby league was, is and always will be, barely-containable chaos.
As we prepare to digest another season of slanging matches, salacious rumours, claims, counter-claims, the odd arrest and, er, games of football, I’d like to humbly throw up a few theories as to why things are the way they are.
The first is the demographics of our workforce.
If you own a business, imagine employing ONLY males between 17 and 33. Once they turn 33, they are laid off and replaced. Now, how big would your human resources department have to be? Would anyone even want to work for you in HR?
First, you have a single sex workplace. I won’t generalise but I can’t find any studies that suggest this is a good thing. Then you have a scenario where adolescent men in a single-sex workplace seek to gain acceptance from, but also compete with, their older colleagues.
Then there is the public recognition factor that results from being in the entertainment industry. It’s the ‘fishbowl’ effect we have spoken about in relation to Ben Barba, where all indiscretions are magnified.
Some observers here would throw in the fact that most of our players come from working class backgrounds. But really, the extent to which they rely entirely on football for their livelihood should make them more appreciative and less likely to get ‘loose’.
What it can do is make people more desperate and willing to take risks. Rugby league has been a gravy train since 1895 – a sport played by the poor that pays money, as opposed to one played by the rich which payed nada.
The tendency for it to become a cargo cult has probably held it back in relation to rugby union. While they were expanding, we were trying to pay for our next meal.
My second theory is anecdotal and open to rebuttal: it’s the ingrained culture in our game’s hotbed, Sydney.
Once a convict settlement, always a convict settlement. In Sydney ‘larrikins’, ‘colourful racing identities’ and ‘scallywags’ are sneeringly revered. Sydneysiders have always gambled, always regarded minor dishonesty as being merely ‘cheeky’ and – importantly – deeply distrusted authority.
In what other city do bullying breakfast DJs earn such obscene wages and set the agenda so completely? Compare this to the more genteel atmosphere in the states populated by free settlers all those years ago, where they still say ‘darnce” rather than ‘daance’.
The last convict ship arrived in Western Australia in 1868, the last NSW ship was in 1840. It’s entirely possible that the children of convicts saw the first round of the Sydney premiership in 1908, a competition whose future was assured by offering Dally Messenger 50 pounds.
(Like Sonny Bill Williams today, Messenger was a ‘big ticket player’ and played only a handful of games for the Roosters because of representative commitments ).
That knockabout, opportunistic Sydney culture is at the core of Australian rugby league culture – and probably gets us into trouble sometimes.
Yet despite all these factors, our players are generally a credit to themselves, their clubs and their game, doing hours of charity work and respecting the few women that are in their workplaces. Player behaviour has improved many times over in the fulltime professional era – I know because I saw what it was like beforehand.
But my message here is simple. Just because we are now overseen by a banker doesn’t mean everyone in the game will start behaving like one.
Maybe David Smith already knows it – and that’s why we launched the season at a casino.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK