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There is no question the players in each NRL side are a vital part of the rich tapestry that makes up our beloved game.
However, they are only one part and they need to be careful not to assume their position gives them the right to subjugate the rest of us – just like a legendary Knight did last week.
Ex-Knights player Tony Butterfield may not have been a superstar player, but he was unquestionably a very good one.
He was an extremely tough and uncompromising defender with a huge motor. In 2000, he went on to become the President of the Rugby League Players Association, a role he held until 2006. Butterfield was a champion for his fellow players. He worked tirelessly for their rights and welfare. I have long admired him for both roles.
But all of that doesn’t make it alright for him to make the comments he did in the Newcastle press last week.
“I had to laugh last week where a long-term know-it-all had a crack at the great Wayne Bennett about his concerns the rules are being manipulated by both player and officials more than ever,” he said.
“The “expert” decided somehow that he knew more than the coach, proceeding to dress him down in his weekly witch-hunt. My advice – show a little respect. Leave the game’s evolution to those who’ve actually played it.”
The “long-term know-it-all” that Butterfield was referring to is most likely Fox Sports and News Limited’s Paul Kent who, on the 23rd of April, had written an article entitled “The ‘ugly’ NRL has returned, and coaches are to blame.”
Butterfield’s comments immediately got my back up. To me, it just came across as ignorant bullying.
It is highly likely that, if Butterfield has issues with “long-term know-it-all” Kent, they stem from the latter’s role as a rugby league journalist.
As loathe as I am to dredge up the Super League war of the 1990s, there is a fair chance that is where an enmity for Kent could derive. Kent was in the News Limited stable and Butterfield in the ARL camp during that fiasco, when two incredibly rich men leveraged our team loyalties to make us pawns in their battle for the games broadcast rights. As well, Butterfield’s role as the RLPA’s President may have brought him into conflict with Kent.
I’m just speculating of course. What I’m pretty sure of is that Butterfield doesn’t like or respect Kent and it’s likely that Kent isn’t a member of Butterfield’s fan club.
However, Butterfield’s call that Kent should “show a little respect” and “leave the game’s evolution to those who’ve actually played it” was totally out of order.
Firstly, Kent played a first-grade game. In Round 20, 1989, Kent wore the number seven jersey for the Parramatta Eels, deputising for the great Peter Sterling. The Eels beat the North Sydney Bears 30-6 that day with Kent at halfback.
The amount of effort and training – not to mention skill – Kent had to put in to get in that position would have been immense. While Kent’s career was consigned to the lower grades, he played the game. Saying otherwise is just poor form on Butterfield’s part.
Secondly, if you read the article, at no stage is Kent “having a crack” at Wayne Bennett. In fact, I felt that Kent was actually supporting what Bennett said and using the great coach’s words to support his argument that the referees should be enforcing the rules over their current propensity for allowing offside defences and the interminable Greco-Roman wrestling in the ruck in the name of letting the game flow.
What this suggests is that Butterfield is now the reserve grader entering Kent’s domain of journalism. He should be very careful to ensure he has a good grip on what is being stated before firing any shots.
Thirdly – and most importantly – Butterfield’s “leave the game’s evolution to those who’ve actually played it” line has the potential to disenfranchise the plethora of people who make up the game.
Is Tony saying that if you haven’t extensively played NRL at the top level that you should just butt out of trying to affect the way the game is carried out?
Because that’s what it sounded like to me.
That regulation would instantly rule out Graham Annesley, Todd Greenberg, Catherine Lumby, Marina Goh, Nick Politis, Peter Beattie, David Gallop, six of the current eight ARLC members, Bernie Gurr, Brad Arthur, Neil Henry, Garth Brennan, Trent Robinson and Andrew Abdo just to name a few.
Given that these people all have a very big say in how the game is evolving, it’s clearly not an edict that exists anywhere other than Mr Butterfield’s philosophy.
But the imputation of what he said had the ability to devalue what the regular people do at the grassroots to maintain and grow the game.
And those people don’t just matter, they are vital. They deserve a say.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with in my life is that I love sport so deeply and yet I have virtually no sporting talent.
In my youth, I was too slow, too uncoordinated and too soft. All of those aspects only amplified with age. I could not take a hit in Aussie rules or rugby league. I was just appalling at cricket. I was a really poor soccer player. I never got above the second division in my playing days, and I was a bench player even then.
However, as a sporting administrator, I was quite effective. I was a large part of the reason that junior girls soccer in the Canberra and Queanbeyan exponentially expanded in the 2000s, as I worked hard to successfully create all girls leagues.
However, if it had been a requirement of the position that I must have played at the top level I would not have got a look in.
There are so many involved with the game of rugby league in Australia that have similar stories to that. Like me, many of them would look up to Tony Butterfield.
His comment may have been a throwaway comment to piss Paul Kent off, but it was insensitive to the people at the grassroots and those coming through the turnstiles.
Our game doesn’t only exist because we buy tickets, memberships and pay TV subscriptions. It can only exist if people run the sausage sizzle and canteen.
It only happens if they wash the jerseys, put out the cones, run the lines, take the kids to their games, coach the side (even though they don’t always know what they are doing), volunteer to go on the committee, organise the competitions, do the draws, run the raffles and referee the games.
For all of those things, they deserve the biggest say in how the game evolves.
And all of those past, present and future NRL first grade players better remember that and show them the respect they deserve.