Believe it or not, Scott Morrison could learn a thing or two from the NRL

What if I told you there was an Australian organisation, for decades run and regulated by old white men, where a boy’s club mentality and acts of sexual misconduct were rife?

What if I told you that, almost suddenly, an incredibly long list of nefarious and disgusting acts, especially against women, came to light in quick succession and demanded an immediate response?

What if I told you those at the top actually drew a line in the stand and took a hard – if controversial and divisive – stance to eliminate this totally inappropriate behaviour as soon as possible?

Well, then you’d know I’m not talking about our government.

For all his insistence that sporting organisations should focus on sport and not politics, Scott Morrison could learn a thing or two from his beloved NRL.

A brief ad:

Yes, after the sexual assault conviction of former star Jarryd Hayne, the NRL’s no-fault stand-down policy and their overall approach to domestic and sexual violence is back in the spotlight – and deservedly so.

As Christian Porter screeched and raged against suggestions that he should stand aside from his role as Attorney General while dealing with accusations of rape, hysterically claiming that standing down would render the rule of law ‘worthless’, Morrison was at a crossroads. He could stand Porter down himself and create the illusion that he, as the ‘boss’ of his organisation – or you know, the Prime Minister – cared about the issue and was on the side of due process.

Or he could go the other way, doubling down, declaring his friend ‘an innocent man’ and confirming he would retain his role as AG when he recovered from mental health leave.

You’ll never guess which one he picked. Oh wait…

He didn’t seek legal advice from the Solicitor General, he didn’t listen to recommendations, he rejected calls for an independent inquiry. When legal experts came out and insisted there was no issue with the rule of law for standing him down during an inquiry, he simply said ‘yes there is’, and carried on.

Even with tens of thousands of women across the nation demanding to be heard, he refused to meet them on their terms. We’ve already covered Morrison and his cohorts’ responses (if they can be called that) and their inadequacy extensively at The Shot. It’s infuriating.

But in the past week alone we’ve heard more detailed and shocking revelations about the cesspit that has become (or perhaps always was) Parliament House – MPs masturbating in the offices of their female colleagues, a prayer room used for sexual trysts, sex workers being brought in to ministerial workplaces to relieve MPs and staffers. Clearly a rotten culture has infected our allegedly hallowed halls.

And finally, after THESE revelations – not the rape accusations against Porter or the experiences of Brittany Higgins or the extensive clusterfuck of issues over the past few weeks that the PM could have chosen to confront like a decent human being – Morrison offered a shallow front of remorse, dripping with crocodile tears, pretending to empathise with the women he’s stoically ignored to this point, before responding defensively to scrutiny with a ‘glass houses’ response that was not only petty and uncalled for, it was totally untrue.

It was the response of a man who’d realised that weeks of unrepentant smirking and defensiveness in the face of an ever-growing shitpile might be affecting his re-election prospects – prospects he’s had to do little to maintain since the pandemic.

Of course, News Corp received an apology within 24 hours.

As he sat in his elevated MCG suite with his powerful friends last weekend, saying ‘how good’s the footy?’ in a desperate attempt to make the people of Victoria forget how much his government and the Murdoch media machine tried to fuck them over for the past 12 months, the PM could be better served at a time like this by watching how his preferred sporting code, the NRL, dealt with things when they found themselves in a similar position to the government all of two years ago.

DRAWING THE LINE

The 2019 off-season was one of the ‘worst’ rugby league had seen, and it’s seen plenty over the years. As well as indecent exposure, illicit drugs, multiple drink-driving infringements including car accidents, attacks of taxi/ride-share drivers (possibly by players who had previously lost their licenses) and salary cap rorts, there were also reports of domestic violence and sexual assault.

It was an extensive list that, just like the government’s recent issues, pointed to massive cultural problems that needed to be addressed as sponsors and fans alike expressed their displeasure in an ominous warning for the brand’s viability. Something needed to be done to stop the players believing their status made them untouchable or above the law – something like Canberra desperately needs now.

But unlike our elected officials, then-ARLC Chairman Peter Beattie (yes, that one, the former Premier of Queensland) and NRL CEO Todd Greenberg had enough testicular fortitude to do the right thing, or at least TRY to, instituting the NRL’s no-fault stand-down policy for players charged with serious criminal offences that could result in prison sentences of 11 years or more.

Beattie wasn’t exactly loved by a lot of his rugby league constituents, making a number of rudimentary gaffes during his time at the top that had diehards and media pundits questioning if he belonged in the role. But just read his words on the day the policy was announced, and consider whether you’ll hear a remotely-similar statement out of the mouth of our Prime Minister.

“I want to make it clear this is no-fault, we’re making no judgement whatsoever in relation to any player charged… What we’re doing is setting a benchmark and standard for the game of rugby league.

“This is not about being popular, this is about sending a clear message that the game doesn’t tolerate violence against women or children. Our job is to rebuild and protect the reputation of the game. That reputation has been damaged by recent events.”

Honestly, Morrison could have swapped ‘the game’ with ‘parliament’ and plagiarised something coherent.

Beattie even said that to NOT take these measures would have been “an act of COWARDICE,” (emphasis mine) – cowardice that the LNP have draped themselves in as they move from one strategic evasion to the next.

Of course, the policy wasn’t greeted particularly warmly – and not just by the harrumphing, typically male footy fans who filled up online comments sections saying ‘LeT tHeM pLaY!’ and questioning the integrity of the victims.

The Player’s Union (RLPA) have also been vociferous in their objections, and at the beginning some clubs expressed their concern for the wellbeing of any stood-down player (despite their continued access to all the game’s mental health resources). They RLPA was challenging it up until one month ago (that’s over two years) when an independent arbiter ruled against them, meaning the policy is officially locked in and here to stay.

Perhaps the clubs were ACTUALLY more worried about having to continue paying the salary of a player they couldn’t use. Perhaps…

THE WHISTLE BLOWS

The first player to be stood down under the policy was Dragons lock Jack de Belin, who was (and is still) facing five counts of aggravated sexual assault for an incident in Wollongong in 2018. One of the counts carries a maximum life sentence.

Instead of being grateful he was still allowed to train and receive his full salary, as well as psychological support from the club while being accused of rape, de Belin and his legal team challenged the policy in court – no doubt with the support or at least keen interest of the player’s union and clubs. Surely Christian Porter’s ‘rule of law’ would have stood on de Belin’s side.

Surprise – it didn’t. De Belin’s lawyer argued such retrospective measures were unprecedented and ‘a world first’, like it was a bad thing. But sometimes it takes unprecedented measures to stamp out entrenched shitty behaviour that occurs all over the world or, at the very least, start holding people accountable for it.

The appeal was dismissed and another later challenge was also withdrawn. After nearly a year and a half, de Belin finally had his day in court – only to result in a hung jury.

He’ll now face a retrial in mid-April, just shy of two and a half years after the policy was enforced. That’s a long, life-affecting time in a young person’s career, sure, but it’s been just as long for his alleged victim, and I’m sure she wasn’t receiving a full NRL player’s salary and free mental health support at the same time.

While the de Belin case hangs in the air and will no doubt impact the perception of the policy’s efficacy when a verdict is (or isn’t) handed down, the recent Jarryd Hayne verdict could in some ways be perceived as vindication.

Another prolific name on that list of off-season miscreants, Hayne was charged with aggravated sexual assault after visiting a woman’s house in the Hunter region in late 2018. Like de Belin, Hayne was forced into another trial by a hung jury.

Unlike de Belin, Hayne was not actively playing in the NRL at the time of being charged, nor when the no-fault stand down policy was introduced. But it’s safe to say that someone of his immense on-field talents (two Dally M medals is a very noteworthy achievement) could have found a place in the game quite easily, despite the allegations, had the policy not been in place.

Now, Hayne has been found guilty and is starting down the barrel of jail time barring an appeal. If you see the graphic evidence and listen to the testimony in the trial, you might find yourself not so much questioning if the verdict is fair, but how it ever went to a second jury in the first place.

Who’s to say that the growing and deserved mass outrage of recent weeks isn’t seeping into the greater public psyche? It may have been in the back of some jurors’ minds as they saw the disturbing video of bloodied sheets and heard the testimony of a woman who was excited to meet an attractive football star before realising he’d left a cab running outside.

And that’s without even mentioning the weird-as-fuck Ed Sheeran karaoke that preceded the act itself. Or the out-of-court settlement Hayne reached with a US woman who he was accused of leaving in a similar condition during his stint in the NFL five years ago.

The testimony, and so much of what was happening in rugby league, is clear insight into the entitled male mentality that’s directly comparable with the current goings-on in Canberra, and it’s exactly what the policy was put in place to curtail.

Where Canberra has desk wanking, rugby league has had people shadow-boxing next to people wanking. I don’t want to kink-shame anyone but that’s as disturbing as it is weird – and it sums up the creepy fraternal culture that has recently been revealed in the capital as well.

Where Canberra has Facebook Messenger groups dedicated to indecency, rugby league had WhatsApp groups where team-mates would film and share sex tapes filmed without consent – a crime for which Panthers player Tyrone May was stood down and missed 25 games before his day in court. He was found guilty, is on a good behaviour bond, and has had to do community service. The NRL also added their own four-game ban and prevention program, and the club docked 25 per cent of his previous year’s salary, despite vehement objections from the RLPA. Now he’s back on the field.

PLAYING POLITICS

By saying ‘had’, I’m not claiming that rugby league doesn’t have problems. Straight after Round 1 the talking point was Sharks player Toby Rudolf’s post-game comments, the sexist implications and the subsequent warning he received.

Still, when compared to where the game was just a few years ago, there’s a noticeable difference.

Where Canberra has offered lip service and aggressive denial, the NRL dared to offer a solution – or at the very least, a deterrent.

Beattie and Greenberg faced a lot of pressure and scrutiny at the time. It wasn’t just from unions and clubs either – plenty of the past generations of rugby league fans, and even some of the current wave, expressed anger that the game could dare try to be politically correct, insinuating that populism had taken the place of progress. There was plenty from the ‘old boys’ (former players) as well.

Like the AFL’s continued troubles with racism, perhaps it’s the people in the stands, in the club power structures and in the media who are as much the problem as the players themselves, and the reason progress can be so difficult to make. Perhaps.

But even one of the game’s ‘oldest’ boys, South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett (now 71) couldn’t understand the outrage of former players.

“I can’t believe some of the silly statements they’ve all made when they earn a living from this game. They’ve all been a part of it and seen so many things.”

“I think what had happened necessitated that type of decision… They’ll get the message when they start realising the game is not going to have a place for them anymore.”

If Wayne Bennett gets it, so can you.

The NRL did a lot to help increase their profile not just as a product but as a progressive brand – from their support of the Same-Sex Marriage debate through to dealing with racism and putting Indigenous culture and community front-and-centre. But the game’s eye for progress has also stoked the ire of the sex-pest mob in Canberra.

When Macklemore played his hit ‘Same Love’ at the 2017 Grand Final as the Same-Sex Marriage debate heated up, Peter Dutton moaned that there should be a song promoting the no campaign as well if the NRL wanted to ‘truly support free speech’.

When the decision was made last year to withdraw the national anthem from the start of State of Origin matches for the sake of solidarity with Indigenous players, Scott Morrison himself got on the phone to the league himself and said ‘yeah, nah’.

And I thought politics and sport should be kept apart…

Though Beattie and Greenberg were both gone from their roles by the time the pandemic came around, there’s clearly a reason the new men in charge – Peter V’Landys and Andrew Abdo – have kept the no-fault stand-down rule in place (even if they want to change every rule on the field).

The NRL brand is thriving for a multitude of reasons. Yes, the quality of the game is excellent, the personalities these days are largely likeable and V’Landys’ determination to get the game back before nearly any other major sporting code in the world last year helped as well – even if (full disclosure) it cost me my job.

It hasn’t been smooth and it hasn’t been easy – affecting truly positive and long-standing change never is.

But if rugby league – seen by many on the outside as a working-class game played and supported by a primarily middle-income males with a penchant for racism and misogyny – can display enough self-awareness to take strong and unprecedented measures to affect cultural change that creates openness and decency towards women, WHY THE HELL CAN’T CANBERRA?

The PM can invoke his daughters and cry for the cameras all he likes, but it means nothing and achieves even less. He’s already failed on this issue for so long, but as more and more revelations come to light there is still a chance for he and his government to do something more than a cabinet reshuffle, to take a strong stand to defend the integrity of public office and stare down misogyny and sexual abuse. Even if it’s just to keep his election prospects alive.

But it’s going to take balls – and despite how central they are to the issue at hand, he hasn’t shown us any yet.



WRITTEN BY

twitter: @davepiepers
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