It was a cold Saturday afternoon in Sydney, and with clouds swirling overhead I found myself at the home ground of the Helensburgh Tigers rugby league team for a fundraiser for a little man named Slater.
The Helensburgh community had gathered to raise money for Slater, a toddler who tragically lost his mother six months ago as a result of domestic violence. While his mother was killed in one room, Slater lay in the next room, blissfully unaware of how much his life had changed in an instant.
In a week during which the NRL has continued to make headlines for all the wrong reasons, it reinforced that senseless acts of violence seem to be all around us and that as a game it’s now time to do more, because what we’re doing at the moment isn’t working well enough.
It’s been a shocking month for the NRL.
First, allegations of sexual assault made against former Parramatta Eels player Jarryd Hayne.
Second, allegations of assault made against Manly Sea Eagles player Dylan Walker.
Then allegations of indecent assault made against Zane Musgrove and Liam Coleman.
And finally, this week, allegations of sexual assault against St George Illawarra player Jack de Belin.
I love rugby league. I love it so deeply. I love my team, the Parramatta Eels, but I also love the ongoing contribution that women make to our game – as fans, experts, commentators, players, administrators and leaders.
It’s been a tremendous year in that regard, with the inaugural women’s State of Origin at North Sydney Oval being a highlight, as was the launch of the NRL Women’s competition.
But when I read about allegations like this, it hurts my heart. It makes me embarrassed and it truly makes me question why so many men who play our game cannot respect other human beings around them, particularly women.
It’s important to make clear that I don’t think the NRL has a cultural problem or any more of a cultural problem than is facing our society at the moment.
Our game is a microcosm of our society and our society is currently grappling with a national emergency – an emergency that has seen at least one woman a week killed this year as a result of domestic violence.
Consider that statistic for a moment and how challenging it can be for women to feel safe in this world.
If men were being killed at similar rates, martial law would be imposed – or action would be taken a lot faster at the very least, I have no doubt.
It’s so easy for people to suggest that the NRL doesn’t care about women. But it simply isn’t the case.
I know that the players who play our game receive more training about respectful relationships through a variety of programs than any other profession.
The NRL also has strong relationships with the Full Stop Foundation and Our Watch, and Alan Tongue continues to deliver his ‘Voice Against Violence’ program to grassroots clubs all around the country.
This is an issue that the NRL takes very seriously.
But what we need now is action. If any of these men are convicted of the crimes they have been accused of, I want their contracts (if they have one) torn up – and I do not want them to ever return to our game.
In the past the word ‘redemption’ has been used in relation to other players who have actually been convicted of crimes similar to those that these five men have been accused of. Some of these men have used their second chance in the NRL as an opportunity to change their lives.
Enough. Not this time. Alleged violent acts of this nature are becoming far too common, and if education is not working, I hazard a guess that being deregistered will send a stronger message.
And the clubs need to work together on this. If a club takes a strong stance in relation to a convicted player, I don’t care how talented they are – the other clubs need to back that decision, as does the NRL.
I will also no longer cop the argument from people that what the players do off the field is not of concern. It is of concern.
The NRL is a multimillion-dollar brand, and apart from causing irreparable damage to communities and families, these alleged acts of violence also threaten our game’s brand.
But as a society there is still so much work to be done.
Almost as depressing as reading about these allegations has been some of the reactions I have read on social media from men and women.
Incredibly, responses to the allegations levelled against De Belin have included, “Why was she getting into a cab at 1am with two men?”, “Why was she drinking?” and, “Why didn’t she just leave?”.
These attitudes all contribute to a society which is not gender equal. No behaviour justifies or invites an assault of any kind.
If someone is robbed walking down the street, no-one asks, “Why did they decide to do groceries in the evening?” or, “Why weren’t they holding their goods closer to their chest?”.
So why do we do this in relation to charges of domestic violence and sexual assault? Is it because crimes of this nature are so horrifying that humans need to come up with reasons as to why it wouldn’t happen to them?
When men and women implore other men to treat women with respect, often it is framed in the context of whether you would want someone to treat your mother or sister in that way.
I think it is much simpler than that.
I go through life every day trying to be the best version of myself I can be, and in essence that boils down to trying my best to be a good human. And at our core, don’t we all just want to be good humans?
Good humans do not assault other humans.
And I want a game full of good humans, because so many men that play our game go above and beyond to serve their clubs and communities with dedication, commitment and respect.
It’s time for us as a game to say that the minority who do not choose to behave in this way leave and are not welcome to come back.
Need help? 24-hour support for domestic violence or sexual assault is available by calling 1800 RESPECT, or at the 1800 RESPECT website.