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I’ve loved rugby league since I was eight years old.
In the early years footy was about time spent with my dad, curled up on his lap cheering on my new team the Parramatta Eels and players like Dean Pay, Justin Smith, Stu Kelly and my favourite, Clinton Schifcofske.
Plenty has changed from those early years. Some things have not – Parramatta still don’t have a Premiership – but I still love my footy and have learnt over the years that just like any sport, rugby league has its feuds, its politics and of course at times can be driven by agendas.
Over the years the politics and the agendas have frustrated me immensely, particularly because at its core I truly believe we have a wonderful sport which, for the most part is played by men and women who genuinely want to make a difference in the communities which they represent so passionately.
When Todd Greenberg came out earlier this year and encouraged all of us to ‘Talk Up the Game’, I thought ‘Hallelujah’.
For many years I have thought that rugby league has a perception problem and that a big reason for that is because we don’t do a good enough job at celebrating the good stuff that our game does.
And don’t listen to the crisis merchants because our game does to a lot of wonderful things. Our players often go above and beyond when it comes to doing work to serve their community.
I’ve heard stories about Josh Reynolds spending weekends at children’s birthday parties just because they have asked.
Players from the South Sydney Rabbitohs are in peer support groups and encouraged to do an activity together once a week – often these activities are community focused.
When Trent Hodkinson took Hannah Rye to her formal, you would be mistaken in thinking that this was an isolated incident.
Our game is inclusive and has made it clear that there is a place in the rugby league family for you no matter your age, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
And then there is the work the game does as a whole in the community space.
It intrigues me, because rightly or wrongly, there is a perception in our wider community that rugby league has a problem with domestic violence and that our players do not understand the importance of respectful relationships or indeed, how to have them.
Do some further digging and you’ll discover that the NRL has developed relationships with organisations like Our Watch and the Full Stop Foundation.
Our NRL Community team and ambassadors from across the game including men like Alan Tongue travel across Australia and into the Pacific delivering the ‘Voice Against Violence’ program and, in speaking to representatives from the Full Stop Foundation, you’ll hear that they actually believe that the NRL is a leader in education in this space.
So why isn’t that story out there?
Because potentially rugby league is a bit modest and isn’t so good at talking itself up or the rugby league media does not have the same relationship with the game as say the AFL media has with the AFL.
With his hashtag, Todd has given us an invitation and asked us to step up and talk up the game.
But ridiculously, this hashtag has been hijacked by some journalists who can best be described as old and bloody grumpy.
Articles have been written which has suggested that Todd is encouraging all of us to blindly praise the game. Or to overlook weaknesses, problems or inconsistencies. Each one of those journalists has fundamentally missed the point of the hashtag.
There are times when it’s exceptionally important to write constructive articles. To question why something has been done or to ask if we can consider doing something differently.
I wrote an article after the teams in the NRL women’s competition was announced questioning the exclusion of the Cronulla Sharks and South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Jessica Halloran has been consistent and unwavering in her commitment to calling the NRL to account in relation to Matt Lodge and how this was handled.
Andrew Webster is another writer I admire immensely who treads a wonderful line between supporting the game and wanting to make it better.
Todd’s hashtag is not about these journalists. We need them and we need them to make the game better.
Instead, Todd’s hashtag was targeted at us, the fans. Fantastic stuff happens in footy every day and there should be a place for us to share it and celebrate it. This is our game and we are its greatest custodians. This is a responsibility we should take very seriously.
In my view, there’s another group that this hashtag was targeted towards and that is a group of journalists who do nothing but talk the game down. It’s clear that they have an agenda and it could be as simple as increasing clicks and circulation.
These journalists are using their ‘respected’ and widely read platform to be unnecessarily critical of a game that has given them a living for a decade. And to me, it’s just sad.
But the joke is on them because the men and women that they depend on to read and share their work are losing interest (and quickly).
A good example has come in relation to referees. Despite some people in the media complaining relentlessly about the crackdown on penalties, polls taken show that overwhelmingly the fans are supportive and behind it. In my view, we are already seeing the benefits of this crackdown.
The more that these journalists complain the more outdated, unprofessional and childish they look. And the game will move on from them and their outdated views.
#NRLTalkUpTheGame is not about stopping the conversation and it isn’t about pretending we have a perfect sport. Because we don’t.
But we never will. So let’s work together to celebrate our sport while being brave enough to call it into account when it disappoints or lets us down.