By STEVE MASCORD
JOURNALISM is full of new experiences, even after 400 issues of this esteemed organ. For the first time in my career, I am about to write a column which attempts to rebut another column written by the guy paying me for this column.
Most of you will know the back story.
I recently wrote a yarn saying rugby league had a terrible image. League Publications chief Martyn Sadler responded on totalrl.com saying – I think – that I was wrong. Or that I shouldn’t have written that, anyway.
Rather than make this tit-for-tat throughout, which will age very quickly, I’d like to develop this column into a discussion about what is really at the core of rugby league, what its soul means to you and how that differs from myself and Martyn.
That is something people might still find interesting when the 800th RLW rolls off the presses.
This debate has laid bare the fact that some people believe the game is being “taken from them” by poorly behaved players, while others believe pandering to the media and moral outrage would take it from them.
But first, the good thing about Martyn’s piece, which I liked very much, was that he posed a series of questions to me.
Firstly, the story was not prompted by a Tweet from a player agent. His language simply gave me a way into the subject. His comment was made several hours before the Todd Carney photo emerged.
Secondly, I did not “put the boot into rugby league players generally”. There is a paragraph there, which Martyn excludes, where I point out I have praised the behaviour of most players many times before.
The column is about rugby league’s image, mainly in Australia, and the influence of player behaviour on that image.
Martyn completely misses the point when I say a development officer in Hobart suffers when an NRL player stuffs up. It’s not that the development officer thinks less of the sport, it’s that everyone he is trying to sell it to is scared off!
Since the column appeared, grassroots people In Tasmania, Germany, Greece & Thailand have contacted me to thank me. Shannon Crane from Thailand said a 14-year-old boy came up to him and asked “what’s bubbling?”. Simon Cooper sent me a German language clipping about Carney.
These people believed their largely unrewarded efforts were being undermined by badly behaved professionals.
I was also contacted by two extremely high profile former coaches, two well-known former Test players and an ex PR at a pro club. They said I had not gone too far. The PR said the behaviour he witnessed put him off the game “for life”.
Martyn the SMH is a sister paper of The Age. They print the same stories. Rugby league is a mainstream sport in Australia. All stories are written with the expectation they will be read by the wider public, including those who dislike the game. As a writer, if it’s what you believe to be the truth, the opinions of the publisher and the reader do not matter.
You, however, usually write for the converted. My aim was deliberate – to upset insiders by pointing out to them the way the product of rugby league was seen by everyone else, in front of everyone else.
Someone said to me that Martyn’s main error was to confuse the game with the product. I have chased the game all around the world. I’ve seen and experienced all those wonderful things Martyn speaks about. Visiting a Filipino orphanage with young men who had never been to their parents’ home country will live with me forever.
But I firmly believe the product of rugby league is poorly positioned in Australia.More of that later.
Martyn asks if I feel ashamed of rugby league. Yes Martyn, at times I do. And despite your belief that I was playing to the gallery of AFL and rugby union apologists, if you look at comments at the bottom of the column and elsewhere, you will see many other rusted-on league fans in this country feel the same.
One fellow even felt inspired enough to write an open letter to David Smith, detailing the extent of his embarrassment.
Do Rolf Harris and Andy Coulson make me ashamed of being Australian and a journalist as well? Yes! They do! But I remain both nonetheless.
Martin mentions scandals in other sports, as others have. But in Australia, rugby league would already have a down-market image even if players behaved, because a history we all have some understanding of. It’s the lower class rugby here, too.
What bad behaviour does is confirm those prejudices.
That’s where I want this column to go, if there’s room. The huge question we face is: do we just accept our place in the world as a fact of life or do we move to alter our entire demographic?
The AFL aren’t trying to win over rugby league and rugby union fans. They’re trying to convert their kids. They built infrastructure, visit schools, give things away and they have an aura of being cool, genteel and family oriented.
And parents in NSW and Queensland see them as being less “bogan” than rugby league, which is always in the news for badly behaved players. Sure,.it’s in the news because it’st he biggest show in town – but every times someone stuffs up, it plays into their hands.
I believe the AFL will win this war unless we dramatically overhaul our image. The NRL can either be the flagship for a community pursuit or an extreme sport.
A Canberra fan answered some of Martyn’s comments for me. To the point about Ed Ballis: “Yes I can Martyn. It happened after Carney led police on a high speed chase through Canberra after running a red light, while having a suspended licence, then running away from his car to leave Steve Irwin carrying the can – what happens is Carney got let off by The Raiders, The NRL and the courts, as long as he didn’t do it again. ”
To the point about Richard Scadamore:” Barking at women outside All Bar Nun wasn’t particularly complimentary. But then again, nor was pissing on someone else’s neck in the men’s room.”
Martyn once wrote that players who take performance enhancing drugs should not be labelled cheats – which I frankly found outrageous – so we are not going to ever agree on many of the points raised here.
But I believe rugby league is a sport of noble origins that has a fatal flaw. It’s biggest strength is that it is a working class game but its biggest flaw is that for 119 years it has been a gravy train for too many people with no other way of making a quid.
Decisions have been short term-selfish and narrow-minded.
Somehow we have to not only amputate those on the gravy train but also those who facilitate or even ignore them.
The answer to the question of what makes it “our game” is straightforward: it’s not. By the time we get to 500 issues, maybe we’ll have realised it’s everyone’s and have eliminated those who want to keep it mired in a past which NEED NOT have any relevance to the next generation.
I was going to write this column about Jim Savage, who is my closest friend and who I first met as an Open Rugby penpal in 1986.
Jim is now a bartender in Boston, Massachussetts.He buys a season ticket at Warrington every year, even though he can’t go (and if he does, he buys another ticket).
His father stood on the terraces at Wilderspool, so did his grandfather. He was disgusted by the Carney episode.
He inspired my original SMH column.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD