The Roar
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What does NRL really stand for? Not Really Likeable

There is plenty of pressure on Luke Brooks this season - and on the Tigers. (Digital Image by Robb Cox ©nrlphotos.com)
Expert
19th March, 2015
128
4592 Reads

I know we’re only into the third week of the NRL season but honestly, I feel like it’s been going for months already.

And in my head at the moment, NRL stands for Not Really Likeable.

There have been only two weeks of on-field action but add to that the Souths end of season trip fallout, players charged with drug dealing, players signing contracts with clubs other than the one whose jersey they’re pulling on this week and, of course, the ref bashing, the interminable, relentless, boring, predictable and repetitive ref bashing.

Facing my first season in three years where I have no direct involvement in media coverage of the NRL I’m finding myself feeling quite oddly unburdened. I’ve realised my engagement with rugby league is now elective rather than compulsory – and, so far, given the option of watching a lot of rugby league or doing other things, I’m doing other things.

Released from the professional responsibility of spending hours every day thinking about the issues in rugby league, I’ve realised how sick of those issues I really am. Because they are the same old issues and they’ve been done, done, done.

Where is the joy and celebration in rugby league?

It’s a game that dominates the sports news cycle in NSW and Queensland for nearly ten months a year but the stories are overwhelmingly negative.

Why, when we’re trying to get enthused about one season, are we confronted with stories about which players will be going to what teams next season?

Perhaps there is a way the NRL administration can streamline recruitment and player trading procedures so that this craziness can be reined in, but why does it have to take on such all-consuming importance that it scuppers much of anticipation of the current new season?

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Why have we obsessed so much about Jarryd Hayne and his bid to make it in American football?

Good luck to him, but I don’t need almost daily updates on his progress. He’s given himself a huge challenge and if he actually makes it onto the field in the NFL then that’s a big story. Get back to me when it happens.

Going gaga about him getting a foot in the door is a sporting version of the cultural cringe that I find almost embarrassing. It’s like we’re all hoping that Hayne might earn us a proxy endorsement of rugby league from the Americans. Essentially he’s decided he prefers another code of football to rugby league. If rugby league is such a great sport why is this defection supposed to be exciting?

The nightclub fracas in Arizona, details of which emerged on a slow drip over a number of days, and the arrest of Titans players on cocaine dealing and/or using charges are just par for the course. How many times have we swum around those buoys?

What I find even more depressing is that immediately we get the predictable a widespread reactions of: ‘Give them a break, they’re just young guys who’ve done what a lot of young guys do’.

‘There are lots of people in society who do recreational drugs.’ ‘Why do they have to be role models anyway?’ ‘Why doesn’t the media get off their case?’

The simple answer to all of the above is they are young men who are being paid handsomely to be in the media spotlight and represent corporate brands.

Whether or not they should be role models is debatable, but the fact is their money doesn’t come from fans paying at the gate, their money comes essentially from sponsorship dollars: their club’s sponsors, the NRL’s sponsors and the sponsors who funnel money into the TV and radio outlets who broadcast the game.

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Most corporate brands don’t want to be associated with crime, drugs, violence and generally anti-social behaviour. Quite simply, there’s a responsibility that comes with the earn.

And what galls me even more is that a lot of the sympathy for players who transgress is driven by the saturation level of former players who are in the media. ‘He’s a good bloke.’ ‘He’s not that kind of guy usually.’ ‘He needs the game to stand by him.’ Blah, blah, blah.

Some years ago when I worked for a club one of the big hurdles to dealing with player misbehaviour was the attitude of former players who were on staff, or in the boardroom.

‘In my day that sort of thing, and worse, happened all the time. It’s no big deal.’

Players and ex-players tend to see situations from the point of view of the players and not from the point of view of the sponsors and the fringe fans. Rusted on fans will stick solid, but if you want to grow the game you need the money sponsors provide, you need parents wanting their kids to play and you need fans who aren’t totally committed to get more interested.

The problem with the prevalence of ex-player led perspectives is that if you’ve spent most of your life on the inside of the game, you usually lose the ability to see what it looks like from the outside. And on the outside is where the new fans, sponsors and players need to come from.

Still, for me, the number one turn-off factor in rugby league is the constant backdrop of wailing about the standard of refereeing and the way the game is being run.

Neither is perfect, but really, what in life is?

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I’ve been going to rugby league games and following reporting of the game, or reporting on the game myself for five decades now and there have always been cries of ‘this is the worst standard of refereeing ever.’ ‘A refereeing error could decide the grand final!’ ‘Something has to be done.’

Over that time we’ve changed rules, added officials, added technology, increased the communication between officials and, guess what? The mistakes have continued.

Refereeing mistakes will continue forever. Deal with it. Just like players making mistakes will always be part of the game no matter how sophisticated the training and analysis involved in the preparation is.

No matter how professional and dedicated and fulltime the players are it doesn’t stop them making mistakes. Why would it stop referees making mistakes? Where are the panicked cries of ‘A mistake from a player could cost a side a grand final?’ We don’t say that, because we know that’s just what the game is. What any game is.

I’m tired of ref bashing.

I was brought up to believe blaming the ref was the last refuge of a loser.

I don’t know if banning the coaches from making any reference to referees is the answer. My question is, why don’t the bitching comments of losing coaches about poor refereeing get taken with a grain of salt? It’s like the opposition disagreeing with the government. Of course that’s what they say, that’s what they always say. Who cares? But just a hint of dissent from a coach and the headlines and stories roll on, and on, and on.

Same goes for criticism of the people running the game. I’m tired of hearing that they make decisions that are inconsistent. They have too many people in middle management. They promote people from clubs who some believe believe might have screwed up on occasion at that club. Or they hire people who have committed the sin of having worked in ‘the outside world’.

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Are there any reasonably big businesses that don’t attract the same kinds of criticisms? There’s nothing outrageously different going on in rugby league. If anything, I have more faith in the integrity of people runinng the game now than I had in some people who’ve run the game in the past.

I often wonder whether the anti-establishment, breakaway culture that was behind the very foundation of rugby league back in the mining towns of northern England in 1895 is what makes it by nature a sport where everyone’s happiest rebelling against authority.

It’s a sport where many seem to need to be outraged about something to keep them going. And, you know what, if I get to choose, I choose not to have that in my life.

I’m not saying rugby league doesn’t have problems. What I’m saying is it’s always had problems. Like a lot of people who love the game, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to think of solutions to those problems. But I don’t want to do that anymore.

This season, if I’m going to go to rugby league games, or spend hours of my weekend watching it on television, I’m doing it on my own time and I want it to be fun. I want entertainment. I want to appreciate skill. I want to watch a replay of a try so I can admire what made it happen, not so I can run a fine tooth comb over whether the officials missed something in allowing it.

I don’t want to hear all week about how angry and dissatified people are with the game, the administration, the rules, and what’s going on off the field. I don’t want to think about what’s happening next season, or be reminded about guys who’ve left the game to play in sports we otherwise wouldn’t give two hoots about.

I don’t want to feel sorry for guys who take all the advantages of having a public profile and then gripe when they stuff up and that profile bites them on the bum.

If I want issues to chew over, to rile me up, and make me want to demand change, I’ll read the front part of the paper. Or switch over to the news channels.

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Or maybe I’ll watch a sport that has exhilaration as a by-product rather than aggravation and irritation.