Last week, the NRL announced league play would resume in late May, following the introduction of strict biosecurity rules.
But even with new restrictions in place, the league should not resume until it can guarantee the safety of their players and employees.
The league also needs to ask serious questions about the social role of New South Wales’ biggest sport. Rugby’s return can signal a return to normalcy, but is the NRL sending the right message at the right time?
Many clubs are anxious about the short timeframe for restating play. They need enough time to resume operations, rehire personnel, stake out lodging and restart training. They also need time to put in place the proper health precautions.
Although the league claims its rules will be more “stringent than government restrictions”, it is unclear whether the biosecurity measures will be approved at the state or federal level. The league released a 47-page memorandum to clubs on Sunday evening, including additional measures such as:
increased player testing
playing in empty stadiums
a restricted schedule that limits travel
a mandatory COVID-19 training module
the social isolation of players inside their homes, except for essential business and travel
tough sanctions for rule violations.
The premiers of Victoria and Queensland have already voiced concerns about the NRL’s plans. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the federal government have no official position on the move, delegating responsibility for oversight of the NRL’s plans to the states, critics say the resumption of play sets a bad example at a time when Australia is on the cusp of eliminating domestic coronavirus transmissions.
Global health expert Adam Kamradt-Scott has said the restart date was “arbitrary” and warned
“if [the NRL] jump the gun and restart things too early we will confront the situation where we will see cases rise again and us having to go back into stronger restrictions.
The NRL’s weakened financial position has played an important role in its decision to resume play. By mid-April, the league only had about $70 million in cash and was losing $13 million per unplayed round.
The league asked the government for a bailout and was denied. Despite having its largest-ever television contracts, the league had not invested in any collateral, such as a stadium or even the land under its own headquarters, and over the past few years, had spent down its rainy-day fund.
Having also not invested in pandemic insurance, it was looking at a certain financial catastrophe.
A world without sports
The league’s financial woes worsened after a fortnight of sparring with its biggest television partner, Nine, which led pundits to wonder whether the NRL might still have a television home when its current contract ends in 2022.
At the end of the week, the NRL seemed to reach an agreement with Nine. Their rapprochement comes with additional confidence of a forthcoming three-year extension of their television deal, but likely worth less than the last agreement.
By contrast, the NRL’s chief rival, the AFL, had put itself in a position to weather the virus for longer – a fact many rugby fans likely found galling. The AFL also cancelled play and stood down up to 80% of its staff, but it received loans from ANZ and NAB, thanks to the AFL’s ownership of the Docklands Stadium.
The recent departure of NRL Chief Executive Todd Greenberg and the resignation of Rugby Australia Chief Executive Raelene Castle further illustrate how difficult a time it can be for rugby administrators.
Of course, there is danger with restarting too soon, as sporting clubs are particularly vulnerable to the spread of diseases.
Before the NBA season was shut down last month, a number of players tested positive for coronavirus, including four members of the Brooklyn Nets. Only one of the Nets was symptomatic, which raises the question: how long might the asymptomatic players continued to play had league officials not postponed the season?
Asymptomatic carriers could be the biggest problem for the NRL, too. A study in the British Medical Journal and a World Health Organisation report suggested that four-fifths of infected people may be asymptomatic.
As such, the NRL’s proposal to use apps to check temperatures and overall player health might miss those who are infected but not showing symptoms.
The NRL has also had significant issues with health technology in the past, such as when its “sideline injury surveillance” technology failed to properly assess head trauma to Matt Moylan after a shocking collision last year. Moylan played for another 10 minutes before being pulled off the field.
There is also growing scepticism about the NRL’s ability to police itself.
Peter V’landys, the chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission, promises there will be sanctions for those who violate the biosecurity measures.
We’ve got no option, there must be a deterrent because one reckless act will bring down an entire competition and the livelihoods that come with that.
But has the league developed enough trust? It resisted calls for independent doctors to assess concussions for years and, since agreeing to the checks, has only done them inconsistently. It is not certain that league-affiliated doctors would be any more responsible in their approach to coronavirus.
The league is also relying heavily on buy-in from players, many of whom are known more for their recklessness than responsibility. Just this week, several players were forced to apologise after breaching social-distancing rules on a camping trip.
Nor is it clear that fans will support these changes. How will supporters respond, for instance, if a star player is sanctioned for an unessential trip out of his home?
Another logistical question: does the league plan to keep players and other employees separate from their families for the whole season? In other sports, similar models have proven difficult. Teams on the Tour de France have traditionally tried to keep riders separate from their families, with mixed success.
It has been a month without rugby and the NRL’s decision to resume play promises an end to every sports fan’s purgatory. Even so, the league should strongly reconsider. A longer delay, or even a cancelled season, is better than risking the lives of players, league employees and other Australians if the coronavirus were to spread further.
St George Illawarra and NSW State of Origin player Jack de Belin has become the first player to be banned under a new “no fault stand down” policy introduced by the National Rugby League (NRL).
This policy allows the NRL to stand down players facing criminal charges that carry a jail term of 11 years or more, pending the outcome. Players will remain on full pay and will be allowed to continue to train with their teams until the matter is resolved.
In December 2018, the NRL was urged to take “urgent action” after a spate of allegations of domestic violence and assault by players. The sport’s governing body was accused of failing to adequately condemn these acts of violence against women.
Could it be that finally rugby league is listening to the criticism?
Just a few weeks ago, Ben Barba was sacked by his NRL club following allegations he physically assaulted his partner and mother of his four children. After a history of off-field incidents, he was deregistered by the NRL. Despite one former player speaking out in support of Barba, he has been widely condemned by the NRL community.
Violence on the field too often translates to violence off the field. Barba’s sacking should herald a culture shift in the NRL away from versions of masculinity that are exclusive and threatening to women. The sport must move towards a culture that is better aligned with the values of society.
For many years, rugby league has provided an outlet for violence that allows masculinity to be performed.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, league epitomised orthodox masculine characteristics such as aggressive competition and toughness. Fighting, confrontation and belligerence has been revered in media coverage and by the wider public. For example, The Footy Show valorised versions of masculinity that portrayed men as hyper-heterosexual, stoic and aggressive. The hosts repeatedly demonstrated disrespect for women.
But in recent years, social customs, gender relations and the expectations of even hyper-masculine warrior athletes began to change. The Footy Show has been cancelled; and evidence from America’s most similar sport, American football (NFL), suggests that since 2006, there has been a slight decrease in players arrested for domestic violence.
Barba’s sacking appears to provide evidence of an emerging social contract with masculinity. No longer is men’s violence acceptable to the public. Rugby League — finally now — is taking action.
While player welfare is important, so is the welfare of women. The “boys will be boys” excuse no longer stands. NRL endorsed campaigns, such as Power For Change, an initiative described as “empowering young people to be leaders of change against domestic violence”, appeared hypocritical in the face of five sexual assault charges in the most recent off-season. On the sixth, the NRL took action.
It appeared the Australian sporting community had had enough. NRL fans, particularly, were fed up with misbehaving players and seeking significant change. Sanctioning players with bans and fines has proven ineffective.
In addition to introducing their “no fault stand down policy”, NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg has called on other codes to honour the NRL-imposed ban. The Northern Hemisphere Super League has closed the door on Barba and Rugby Australia boss, Raelene Castle, said they would also respect the NRL’s wishes.
The NRL is today at a crossroads.
There has been a highly visible, and extensively documented phenomenon that millennial men reject orthodox notions of masculinity. They instead value intimacy among friends, tactility, respect for women, and disregard for violence. Much of the reason for this is considered to be related to changing mores surrounding male homosexuality. When this changes, so does everything about masculinity.
The sociological work on this suggests that when heterosexual men exist in a culture that maintains high antipathy toward gay men (as existed in the 1980s), they will try to distance themselves from anything associated with gay men. Thus, men revere violence and stoicism, and hyper-sexualise women. They are thought weak for showing emotions concerning care for other men, or fear of confrontation.
However, as cultural attitudes have shifted, making homophobia and not homosexuality stigmatised, heterosexual men have more social freedom to express gender in ways that were once taboo. So it becomes permissible to talk your way through a problem with another male instead of fighting.
Scholars call this inclusive masculinity, but more colloquially it might be understood as a highly revered, feminised masculinity. In the last few decades, we have seen wholesale shifts to adolescent masculinities, something epitomised by the burgeoning of the “bromance”.
The bromance is blossoming, says study
The NRL has divided fans with its recent rule change. Although the rule change sends a strong message to players and clubs that violence will not be tolerated within the code, until the wider culture of Rugby League begins embracing alternative forms of masculinity, the cause of the problem will still remain.
Jessica Richards, Lecturer Sport Business Management, Western Sydney University; Eric Anderson, Professor of Masculinities, Sexualities and Sport, University of Winchester, and Keith D. Parry, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management, University of Winchester
Rugby League players are people who have decided to play a game/sport and they have every right to do so. Those who reach an elite level of the game have a proven ability to play and rightly deserve to be regarded as great players of the sport. But that is all they gain by playing the game. They don’t automatically become role models and the behaviour of many players over the years has shown that any attempt to prove them so is clearly ridiculous.
Being a great sportsmen doesn’t make you a great person. Being a great sportsmen doesn’t make you a hero – it is in the end only a game and you have not proven yourself to be an exceptional human being. A number of exceptional human beings have played rugby league, but it was not their association with rugby league that made them so or made them a role model.
Observers of the game of Rugby League can be forgiven for thinking that there are many modern players of the game who come nowhere near the position of being a role model, exceptional human being or even a decent human being. Indeed these descriptions may be beyond a number of those playing the game and the behaviour of players at a recent ‘Mad Monday’ event involving the Canterbury Bulldogs may only confirm this in the minds of many. Others defending the players ‘right’ to privacy as a defence for their offensive behaviour may very well also fail to reach a standard of decency that many fear is lost to so many players in the current rugby league playing generation.
The link below is to an article reporting on the pathetic response to the offensive comments made to a female journalist following the Canterbury loss to Melbourne.