Last week, the NRL celebrated Women in League Round.
As a round, it is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the varied contributions that women make across the game and it also gives our players the chance to thank and honour special women who have helped and assisted them along their rugby league journey.
For me, the round took on extra significance this year, particularly when thinking about how far we have progressed, especially when it comes to women playing the game. It’s worth reminding all of you that we are less than a month away from the beginning of the inaugural NRL women’s competition and another historic milestone in the history of our game.
The only thing that wasn’t perfect about this round for me was the inundation my Twitter timeline had on Friday night when Matt Lodge scored an eight-point try in the Brisbane Broncos’ loss to the North Queensland Cowboys. Since then, I have been asked several times how I feel about Lodge being able to play rugby league.
The truth is, it troubles me greatly and it is one of the hardest issues I find myself grappling with as a rugby league fan and, more importantly, as a feminist.
You’ll all recall the exceptionally confronting footage of Lodge in New York in 2015, breaking into a home and violently assaulting several people. After several attempts to come back to the NRL, the Broncos announced his signing at the start of the year, despite him owing $1.6 million dollars in compensation to his victims.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, the NRL intervened, ordered Lodge to enter into some sort of agreement with his victims and then it was announced that, in June this year, he reached a confidential settlement to compensate his victims.
At various points through the year, it has made me deeply uncomfortable to see Lodge playing, particularly at the beginning of the year when I knew he was not paying compensation.
I struggled to understand how the Broncos rationalised this signature and, despite only being on a minimum wage, why Lodge had not been required to enter into an agreement with his victims before signing that dotted line with Brisbane at the start of the year.
But now that Lodge has entered into such an arrangement and his victims are being compensated, should he be able to play footy?
That all depends on what you think the NRL’s role is in punishing or rehabilitating players that have done the wrong thing.
When I was younger, I used to think it was black and white. It was simply a case of, if a player committed a serious offence the NRL should wipe its hands clean of them.
Part of being a player in the NRL is being a role model and if a player did not take that role seriously, it was easier to cut them loose.
However, my thinking has since changed.
I have come from a very privileged background. I am well educated. I wanted for nothing growing up. I have a loving and stable family and I was given many opportunities which have put me in an exceptionally fortunate position today.
Some of our players are not so privileged. Some of our players have come from very challenging backgrounds and some have seen things growing up that no child should. This does not excuse poor behaviour, but it helps put things in perspective.
For many of these men, rugby league is an opportunity for them to change their lives. And I have seen many players convicted of offences, who have done their time according to the law, come back and make positive changes in their clubs and at their communities.
Marina Go, chairwomen of the Wests Tigers, often puts Russell Packer in this category. After being very wary about his signing, Go and her board trusted their coach Ivan Cleary. Since returning to the Tigers, Packer has, by all accounts, taken the opportunity with both hands, is focused on his family and with the support of the club is also undertaking an MBA.
I’m proud that rugby league has given this man a second chance and that he has taken it.
Should Lodge also be given this chance, particularly if he is genuinely remorseful and wants another opportunity to turn his life around? If not, what offences are serious enough to ban a player for life and who makes that decision on where that line is?
As footy fans, sometimes we forget what is important and how much we sacrifice in the name of being successful on the field. At the start of the year, Lodge was booed every time he touched the football. As the season has progressed, the crowd seems to have lost its fight.
Additionally, I heard people saying that, despite it being a ‘politically incorrect’ thing to say, Lodge should be in the running for signing of the year.
When incidents like Lodge’s happen, it is hard to defend the actions of the minority in the face of overwhelmingly positive behaviour of the majority.
The easy option would be to walk away. To be disgusted and to stop watching my sport.
But what does that achieve? Very little.
I want to be part of a force that helps to change our game for the better and to encourage and challenge the NRL to think about how it responds to incidents like these. They should be more up front in communicating to fans about the standards of acceptable behaviour for our players.
Walking away does not achieve anything. But continuing to support the game and challenging it to be better hopefully achieves a little bit more.