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Fixing rugby league step four of five: Sort out the off-season

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Roar Rookie
9th March, 2019
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I have already discussed the ideas of stadiums, reducing or relocating teams and funding for the NRL, but for the fourth installment of the series I’d like to make a right-hand turn from the general administration of the game and talk about the handling of players – specifically the off-season from hell that is still unfolding.

The Bulldogs’ mad Monday celebrations seem like a lifetime ago with the number of incidents this summer. Luke Kinsella’s news.com.au article entitled, ‘The 66 scandals in four years that have rocked the NRL‘ goes so far as to list all such incidents that have occurred in the last four years, and this article was written on 8 February, before the various Penrith sex tapes were leaked, with several court cases ongoing and with Jack de Belin furiously and publicly fighting for his innocence. It’s true that something needs to be done.

So far all policies, as mentioned in my previous piece, are reactive. Punish players, some through deeply embarrassing ways a la Scott Bolton, and set examples to scare players into behaving. This might work for a while, but in the long run it will fizzle out, players will forget after time and the problems that have been suppressed will rise again.

I am currently studying teaching, and we spend a substantial period of time learning about behaviour management and factors that can cause students to misbehave. Boredom can be a major catalyst for poor behaviour, and little is different in adults. Boredom can manifest itself in adults in different ways. It can spark moments of genius and of beautiful creativity. However, it can also brood overthinking, depression and, like in children, a tendency for mischief.

The NRL off-season is long. Players have a couple of months of downtime before the preseason picks up in the early summer. Combine this with huge amounts of money for people their age and it’s a recipe for disaster.

So there are two main ways the NRL should attempt to stop the bleeding of the annual off-season fiasco: off-season programs and club counsellors.

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The first involves having players being productive with their off-season, undertaking activities such as short courses at TAFE or completing other study, taking up a trade, regularly volunteering or otherwise getting some kind of short-term work. The benefits here are twofold: first, it would keep players occupied during their downtime and give them some responsibility, and second, many players have nothing but the game, so having other qualifications equips them for life beyond rugby league. Players would not be forced into the programs; however, it would be strongly encouraged and has the potential to develop into part of the culture over the next decade.

Yes, players work extremely hard during the season and deserve some time off. And yes, it is a small minority of players who get into trouble each off-season. However, it is still important for the NRL to prepare these players for the future, so it should provide support in getting players involved in whatever off-season activity they choose.

The second idea involves each club having a full-time counsellor. I am only a fan with little insight into the day-to-day operations of a club, so this may already exist – and I also have no psychology qualifications, and if I am getting this absolutely wrong, please tell me – but having such a service on a daily basis for players may provide another avenue for them to address any mental health concerns at a completely private level. It may not help all players, but I could almost guarantee a handful at each club would find it extremely useful. It may even help stem the tide of off-season dramas. But who’s to say.

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Beyond this there is only one more issue I wish to address in my final article of the series. This involves the annual contract sagas that we all endure, and what can be done to end the farce.