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How rugby league was stolen by self-interested clubs

The Independent Commission appears to be ousting John Grant. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Roar Guru
29th November, 2016
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1840 Reads

The punters cheered as the ARL finally agreed to the terms of a new Independent Commission to control the game of rugby league in Australia from February 2012.

Soon they will cheer again at the removal of the ARL Commission’s John Grant – but the punters are largely blind to the reality of rugby league politics and the true money trail that underlies the power struggle – unwitting spectators in the latest chapter of the theft of the greatest game.

To be clear, the ARL Chairman, John Grant, is not proposing less money for the NRL clubs, just allocating more of the financial gains to help grow the game at grass roots levels.

That is indeed a worthy cause that is long overdue and, clearly, within the mandate of the Independent Commission’s charter.

Punters need to understand his position is not to take money from the NRL clubs nor to not give an increase – just to give them less of an increase than previously agreed so that the broader game can be nurtured.

When the ARL Commission was debated in 2011, the usual Channel Nine player celebrities ensured the proposed Independent Commission had the backing of the unwitting masses and also silenced those highlighting the constitution’s obvious shortcomings.

This tactic continues today with Channel Nine player celebrities supporting the NRL clubs’ position to receive a further $100M and not see any of it be spent on grassroots footy as proposed by the Independent Commission.

Before the Independent Commission was formed, the ARL controlled rugby league in Australia – except for the national premiership competition which was, unfortunately, half-owned by News Ltd as a result of the great Super League wars of the 1990s.

It was truly a massive decision for News Ltd to forego its stake in the game which it had offered since late 2009 – but it was a moment seized upon by a different group that sought to profit from the game.

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With the ARL itself an equal partnership between the QRL and NSWRL, its voting system gave a tie-breaking casting vote alternately between the two custodian bodies. For the decision to disband the existing ARL and form a new entity called the ARL Commission, that casting vote was the NSWRL’s Colin Love.

The QRL’s Ross Livermore and Terry Mackenroth warned everybody of the proposal but were both attacked in Sydney amidst claims they were stalling change. Indeed they did oppose the proposed Independent Commission’s constitution, which would give 16 votes to the existing NRL clubs (one per club) but just one vote each to the QRL and NSWRL bodies.

These bodies together had a 50 per cent ownership in the national premiership and were responsible for the game of rugby league at all levels. The QRL, in fact, proposed an alternate constitution to limit the NRL clubs’ collective power in the best interests of the game in the broader sense.

This sentiment was not shared by the NSWRL – its directors still being determined by the Sydney district clubs, most of which were also NRL clubs. The QRL’s proposed model was rejected.

The resulting constitution sees the so-called Independent Commissioners fate at the mercy of the NRL clubs’ – hardly independent. The NRL clubs’ collective vote can oust any Independent Commissioner and the ousting can continue until they get what they want.

This fact was obvious in 2011 to the disbelief of the average punter. But, as they say, you should always bet on a horse called ‘self-interest’ and the NRL clubs, and the NSWRL by proxy, have self-interest in spades.

This week is the first real test for the ARL Commission – not for its Commissioners, but for its constitution. It is a test that it will fail, a test that will demonstrate the voting model does not promote independence of decisions for the game, a test that will demonstrate that the NRL clubs cannot be trusted to act outside their own interests and a test that will prove that the game of rugby league has been stolen from the many clubs by the few.

Constitutions matter and reversing a bad one takes years and takes courageous individuals to stand up in the face of enormous opposition and self-interest.

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