Do sports stars get a fair go?

By Doug Conway,

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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?

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    The Crowd Says (6)

    • March 13th 2009 @ 7:17am
      Rabbitz said | March 13th 2009 @ 7:17am | ! Report

      The presumption of innocence is well and truly enshirined in our system of law – as it should be. However I question whether just because the legal system uses it, are the rest of society’s functions obliged to make this presumption?

      In a Court of Law this presumption is paramount, but in the Court of Public Opinion I do not believe that any such rules exist. The human mammal is by historical necessity a reactive, protective beast. We are more or less programmed to make snap judgements and to form opinions on what information is before us. This leads us to situations where the presumption of innocence is disregarded or doesn’t even play a part.

      Frankly, if I am not one of the twelve peers used to judge innocence, it matters not whether I believe someone is innocent of guilty.

      Similarly, an employer (especially of someone who is under intense public scrutiny) should be free to act in accordance with their instincts and opinion in these matters, and it should make no difference to the presumptions within the judicial system.

      Sports-people are in fact merely employees, despite their sometime elevation to deity. High profile sports-people, and I would suggest rugby league players, are continually made aware of their obligations to their employers regarding off-field behaviour. It is part of the package, if you want this job, then here are the rules, constraints and obligations that you need to abide by. If you don’t like it, then don’t take the job. Sports careers are generally relatively short, so to make it worthwhile these people need to accept the the whole package, not just the bits they like.

      It really annoys me when certain commentators trot out the line that “they are just doing what ordinary people of their age do”. Well if they want to be able to do then they need to refuse the extraordinary work package, get a real job and then hit the turps on a Saturday night.

      The bottom line is we are all responsible for our own actions. Our decisions dictate what our actions are and should be. By deciding to accept the job of high profile sports-person then you also decide to accept the scrutiny and to be held to account by the Courts of Public Opinion.

    • March 13th 2009 @ 9:53am
      Dan said | March 13th 2009 @ 9:53am | ! Report

      I’m going to stop you here Doug:
      “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?”

      The short answer is yes. All full time professional sports stars are walking advertisments for the game whether they like it or not. It’s simply the price you pay for being paid megabucks to kick around a footy while normal people have to actually work for a living; a fair trade some might say. And this is what gets me – yes there are other examples of players of lesser profiles being delt less harshly, but Rugby League is a business and when your pin up star goes out and basically fucks up the image of your product you’re likely to be a little pissed off with him. You’ve entrusted him with safeguarding the games dignity and what does he do? Not only does he go out and makes a fool of himself on the piss, he also manages to get accused of sexually assaulting a teenager! Sorry, but guilty or innocent you really can’t help but think that maybe Brett should have been keeping himself in check considering the gravity of his role.
      So no, he hasn’t been hung out to dry, he’s hung himself out!

    • March 13th 2009 @ 9:56am
      benicio said | March 13th 2009 @ 9:56am | ! Report

      There are two separate issues here…

      Firstly, Brett Stewart was suspended by the NRL because he made a drunken fool of himself at his club’s season launch whilst he was the face of the NRL’s marketing campaign. His suspension has nothing to do with the accusation of sexaul assualt. One can only see this as the right decision, due to the considerable amount of money the NRL has now had to waste in re-cutting the commercial and re-working its ad campaign. Someone was always going to be made the scapegoat for that and rightly, it was Brett Stewart.

      The second issue is the accusation of sexual assault. This is where things start to get tricky. I have grave reservations on how these types of allegations are dealt with by the media and society in general. Over the last few years , in both NRL & AFL, there has been an increased number of sexual assualt allegations. Not one player though has ever been prosecuted following these allegations. I am not for a second denying the rights of any individual under the law nor putting professional sportsmen on a pedestal and declaring free of the law. I am merely raising the question of whether the process of dealing with such allegations should be re-defined?

      Lets look at the player as a commercial commodity to begin with. Take Karmichael Hunt for example. Following on from the incident he was involved in last year – what effect, commercially, does that have on the rest of his career? Will he ever be Captain of the Broncos? No, probably not. Will sponsors have a different perspective on him as an individual? Yes, more than likely. Will his power to negotiate a contract be diminished? Yes. I whole heartedly agree that Karmichael made an error in judgement for putting himself in that position to begin with. But splashing his name all over the papers and diminishing his capacity to earn for the rest of his career – is that fair?

      And what of the women that make the allegations? How heavily scrutinised is that? If there is not enough evidence to pursue a conviction – should that be front page news instead of buried in the back of the paper? The players have to stick their hand up and say they got it wrong, yet the women drift off into the sunset, identity intact, earning capacity intact, maybe even enhanced by a women’s magazine at some stage. Where is the balance?

      The players, the judicial system, the media, the women… A simple error of judgement can lead to so much more. So Brett Stewart should be penalised for his error in judgement, yes. He was drunk and he refused to accept the responsibility of the position he was given. That is what society should judge and penalise him on. As far as the allegations go – lets just wait and see…

    • March 13th 2009 @ 11:28am
      Skull said | March 13th 2009 @ 11:28am | ! Report

      Yeah well we will see what happens the next time a Bronco player gets drunk in public.

    • March 13th 2009 @ 2:41pm
      Tom said | March 13th 2009 @ 2:41pm | ! Report

      benicio, if Stewart’s suspension had nothing to do with the sexual assault case, then how come Watmough, for example, wasn’t suspended? If the NRL suspended every player that was drunk in public, my grandmother would probably be up for origin selection.

    • March 13th 2009 @ 3:33pm
      benicio said | March 13th 2009 @ 3:33pm | ! Report

      Tom… one simple reason – Watmough wasn’t the face of a multi million dollar advertising campaign. The decision by the NRL is fairly transparent. If you had spent $1.5 million on an ad campaign and the star of that campaign went and made an idiot of himself – you wouldn’t be a happy camper now would you??

      The NRL empowered Brett Stewart and enhanced his commerciability by making him the face of the campaign – they could have chosen any NRL player – and because Stewart didn’t hold up his end of the bargain, the NRL have suspended him. I don’t see how they were ever going to come to any other outcome.

      I know for a fact that it has cost them a considerable amount of money to re-cut the campaign and re-model their marketing. Someone was always going to feel some pain for that.

      I wouldn’t tell your grandmother to strap on the boots just yet…

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