Do sports stars get a fair go?

By , 13 Mar 2009

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    Australians are always told they are innocent until proven guilty, but do famous Aussies always get that fair go?

    NRL star Brett Stewart’s case highlights the difference between a court of law and the court of public opinion.

    Legalities aside, rugby league’s erstwhile golden boy took a hiding in the ring of community opinion in his attempt to play in Saturday’s season opener, which will now go ahead without him.

    With backing only from his own camp – his coach, his lawyer and his player association – he was overwhelmed by the heavyweight combination of the Australian government and opposition, the NSW government and opposition, the National Rugby League, rival clubs, rival codes, Queensland coach Mal Meninga, women’s rights groups, victims’ rights groups, responsible drinking advocates and just about every media columnist under the sun.

    All said he should be stood down after he was charged – not convicted but charged – with the sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl following a “boozy” season launch last Friday.

    And so he was, not by his Sydney club Manly, the reigning Australian and world champion, but by the sport’s governing body, the NRL, which went over Manly’s head and also fined the club $100,000.

    Stewart cannot play for at least the first four rounds of the 2009 season, until after his case goes to court on April 7.

    Many public comments on the case were clearly made in the belief that Stewart was suspended over the alleged sexual assault last Friday night.

    But the NRL later stressed that had nothing to do with it.

    He was outed because he had been refused service and thrown out of the Manly Wharf Hotel, allegedly breaching the game’s code of conduct by being drunk in public.

    The NRL has been rightly applauded for its attempts to clean up a game long blighted by a sickening litany of player drunkenness, violence and assaults.

    But Stewart’s case raises a number of new questions.

    Would he have been punted if he was a journeyman at a lowly club, rather than the pin-up boy of the league’s $1 million 2009 ad campaign, which had to be re-worked?

    Is he paying the price for all the bad behaviour that has gone before, simply because of his ultra high profile?

    Is he, as the players’ association suggests, being “hung out to dry”?

    If he had been sober last Friday, yet still stood accused of sexual assault, would he still be playing?

    Is the NRL now going to be consistent and suspend every player found to be drunk in public?

    Getting drunk may be extremely foolish but it is not, in itself, an offence, and Stewart faces no charges relating to alcohol.

    He also denies the sexual assault charge.

    If sporting bodies are sometimes more concerned about managing the image of a game than the rights of any individual, are they right to take that stand?

    Public office holders are sometimes stood aside pending investigation into claims made against them.

    NSW Education Minister John Della Bosca, later cleared by police over the Iguanas nightclub affair, was a recent example.

    But sportsmen, even if they are public role models, are not public office holders, and there seems to be little consistency in the treatment they receive when accused of wrongdoing.

    Gold Coast forward Anthony Laffranchi and NZ Warriors winger Michael Crockett both continued to play last year while facing sexual assault charges of which they were later cleared.

    Yet Stewart has been stood down for being drunk.

    Cronulla took action against Greg Bird, standing him down after he was accused of glassing his girlfriend, a case still before the courts.

    Yet the Roosters are taking no action until the courts deal with domestic violence charges against forward Anthony Cherrington, which include an approach with a knife.

    Stewart’s predicament carries echoes to that of Nick D’Arcy, who was kicked off Australia’s Beijing Olympics team last year after being charged with king-hitting fellow swimmer Simon Cowley.

    D’Arcy was, in the eyes of the law, an innocent man at the time he was dumped, though he subsequently pleaded guilty and will be sentenced later this month.

    Federal Sports Minister Kate Ellis said Stewart was entitled to the normal due process of the justice system, but “given the circumstances I don’t think it’s appropriate that he plays”.

    Her opposition counterpart, Andrew Southcott, said that for Stewart to play this weekend would display “gross insensitivity to the victim and her family”.

    Perhaps he should have said alleged victim.

    NSW Premier Nathan Rees said it was no reflection on Stewart’s impending trial, but “for the good of the game” he should not play.

    NSW Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell said: “My view is forget the court case. This bloke was drunk.”

    Public drunkenness alone was reason enough to stand Stewart down, he said.

    Federal Minister for the Status of Women Tanya Plibersek said the NRL should make a decision on the basis of what it believed was an appropriate image for the code.

    Cronulla chief executive Tony Zappia said his club probably would have stood Stewart down, as it did with Greg Bird.

    Zappia also revealed the views of team sponsors played a role in the Bird decision, raising a further question – should corporate boxes wield any influence over what happens to a player?

    NSW Minister for Women Verity Firth said everyone was entitled to the presumption of innocence, but Stewart should stand aside until the court case was resolved.

    If it’s anything like D’Arcy’s, however, that could be a year.

    Stewart’s lawyer, Geoff Bellew, described as “lunacy” the suggestion that a charge automatically required a player’s suspension.

    And when it became clear the NRL’s trigger was Stewart’s alleged drunkenness, not legal action, Stewart’s manager George Mimis said: “In the circumstances, Brett looks forward to again being available for selection in round five.”

    NRL boss David Gallop said: “Players shouldn’t need to be told the last weekend before the season is double demerit weekend.

    “Brett Stewart had a big responsibility to the code,” he told a Sydney newspaper. “He is now Mr Double Demerit.”

    That statement raises another question.

    Do NRL players now face heavier punishments depending on when their crimes are committed?

    © AAP 2014
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