THE BIG ISSUE: #42

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

THE passing of Alex Elisala has rightly led to more soul-searching over depression and the general mental health of our young stars.

I want to completely separate the issue I am about to raise from this tragedy and the loss of Wests Tigers’ Mosese Fotuaika earlier this year because there’s not any evidence it was a factor and it would be inappropriate to make the link anyway.

But in all our considerations about counselling and talking to team-mates and training staff to identify problems, have we considered the impact of moving players from their homes at a young age?

Some youngsters cope better without their families and friends than others but everyone finds it difficult to an extent. I have never, before or since, felt more lonely than my first few weeks living in Sydney as a 20-year-old – and I only came from Wollongong!

People say it’s harder for Polynesian and Indigenous boys. I don’t know.

But we are talking about re-introducing reserve grade, which would presumably bring more kids in from the bush who are currently playing Intrust Super Cup and country football. Is that the direction we should be going?

This columnist raised the issue briefly on Triple M last Friday night. Gorden Tallis and Wendell Sailor agreed it was important that young players stay in their childhood home as long as possible.

Perhaps when we look at competition structures, we need to consider our duty of care to the players we recruit. Maybe the NRL needs to introduce a minimum age for players moving cities, states and countries to take up professional careers.

Maybe we need intermediate competitions run over short periods for these kids, so they can stay home but still come to the city for the odd “camp”.

We want more football in regional areas. We want a second tier that gives us a wide geographical spread, not concentrated in the places we already have NRL teams.

We want to look after our most precious commodity, our upcoming players. These objectives don’t seem to me to conflict with each other at all.

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ACCORDING to the Players’ Poll, 72 per cent of NRL players don’t trust the media. Any of us.

Sadly, I can see this percentage only heading in one direction in future years – upwards. The main reason can be summed up this way: do you trust many people you don’t know?

In the old days there were a handful of reporters covering the premiership. Players had jobs. Players went out drinking. Journos went out drinking. They drank together.

Even in the fulltime professional era, ‘beat’ reporters got to know the people they interviewed each day. Let’s face it, we have 450 people we have to get our stories from whereas most reporters have the population of the entire world.

We’re bound to come across each other more than once.

The biggest factors in the erosion of trust? The rise of gossip columns and gossip journalism is one. The contradiction here is that the players are the biggest consumers of gossip around! If you dislike gossip columns and gossip columnists, dear NRL player, stop reading them. It’s like recycling – you can’t see the difference you’re making but at least you’re doing something.

Another factor is the rise of sterile “media opportunities”. Whereas players used to know reporters as people, now they are just faceless beings thrusting microphones, cameras, iphones and Dictaphones in their faces.

When one club captain reckoned he was taken out of context on TV recently, he got his entire squad to vote against doing one-on-one interviews with anyone! But this fellow is on the payroll of a TV station!

Clubs now studiously tick off their required media opportunities and find loopholes, with some star players not sighted for weeks and weeks. It has got to the point where an interview will be done tomorrow, not today, even though a reporter and player are standing next to each other – so it can be crossed off next week’s NRL enforced quota!

Another reason relationships have eroded is the sheer number of media outlets and media representatives clubs now deal with. There are some 1500 media people accredited by the NRL – a lot of ladies and gentlemen to distrust.

I’d like to suggest ways to drive this percentage down – I really would – but ask club bosses if they want their players to have relationships with reporters, I reckon most would say ‘no’ if they were honest.

Deny it all you like, clubs want to control what players say. A player might be happy to say something and a reporter might be happy to write it – but if the coach isn’t happy with the result, the hack’s the man who isn’t there to defend himself when the shit hits the fan.

So things are only going to get worse.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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