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NRL need to take this opportunity to draw a line in the sand

Andrew Fifita was 'emotionally wrecked' heading into the NRL grand final. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Grant Trouville)
Roar Pro
26th July, 2015
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1416 Reads

If – and I stress, it is ‘if’ at the moment – what is alleged against David and Andrew Fifita is true, there is no other option for the Cronulla Sharks than to tear up their contracts.

If they don’t, the NRL and it’s so called ‘Integrity Unit’ must intervene and do it for them.

Rugby league cannot afford this kind of press.

In a time when football and AFL are doing wonders to win fans amongst women and children, what kind of message would it send if this behaviour is tolerated or accepted in any way?

I’m not suggesting for one minute that these other codes, or even other sports for that matter, don’t have ill-discipline and poor treatment of referees and umpires at a professional level.

They absolutely do.

The difference here is that we’ve got professional sportspeople allegedly abusing a volunteer official at a junior level. It’s worth repeating those two key facts.

Volunteer official. Junior level.

If the Fifita brothers are indeed found guilty of partaking in this behaviour, it’s a very slippery slope for what is condoned in terms of player behaviour.

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There is already an issue with how officials are treated in all sports. Players, coaches, parents, fans – nearly all those involved with sport at some level – have let their frustration with officialdom get the better of them at one time or another.

I absolutely put myself in that category.

The problem here is the example it sets for kids.

Whether we like it or not, sportspeople are role models and their standards are placed on a pedestal. We may not like it, but that is reality.

Between the ages of 14 and 20, I was a Rugby Union referee.

From a young age, I knew that my abilities in the sport I loved were never going to get me anywhere near the elite level, so I looked for other avenues of involvement.

I refereed two or more games every Saturday of schoolboy rugby and before long was officiating in junior representative fixtures and was in a national referee development program.

I was excited at the prospects that came with it.

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However, not a weekend went by where I wasn’t abused.

Some of the vitriol I copped from parents truly had to be heard to be believed. Saturdays became increasingly unenjoyable. Saturdays occasionally made me fear my own safety.

I gave it away at the age of 20.

I’ll admit I probably needed a thicker skin, but you don’t realise those things at 15.

Equally true, however, is the fact that I am one of countless young men and women who would like volunteer to be referees and umpires, in any sport you can name, who don’t participate because of the abuse they have received.

Let’s not forget two key facts.

Firstly, sports don’t exist – at any level – without umpires and referees. Secondly, sport at the junior level, is a game. It is not a multi-million dollar corporate exercise like professional sport.

Not that that excuses abusive and intimidating behaviour directed towards officials.

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On Sunday, NRL CEO David Smith labelled the alleged behaviour “intolerable”. He’s absolutely right.

It is disrespectful and it is intolerable.

James Graham’s suspension at the start of the year was a step in the right direction for the poor behaviour on field directed towards match officials. One has to wonder what will happen here.

The last thing Cronulla needs is more negative press and trauma for their fans after the arduous years they’ve endured with prolonged ASADA investigation.

However, this is one tough decision they may have to make if the alleged becomes fact.

The Sharks and the NRL potentially have a chance to begin drawing a line in the sand when it comes to the level of respect match officials are given.