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On Burgess and Folau

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Expert
24th September, 2019
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Here are a couple of unpopular opinions: the NRL was right to haul Sam Burgess over the coals and little harm would be done by allowing Israel Folau to play for Tonga.

I know, I know…

Let’s start with Sam. As long as I’ve been covering rugby league (that’s a long time), observers have had trouble with discerning between criticism and defamation.

Everyone focuses on the colourful words, like ‘farce’ and ‘joke’ and ‘disgrace’. They are words that would hurt the person at whom they are directed but they should not be the ones that are most likely to get you in trouble.

Instead, far less exciting words – like ‘unfair’, ‘biased’ and terms which suggest prejudgement, such as ‘kangaroo court’ – are more likely to send you up the river.

And that’s as it should be.

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As I’m sure Todd Greenberg explained to Big Sam, a kangaroo court is one that “ignores recognised standards of law and justice”.

Hell, you just can’t go around publicly accusing people of dishonesty.

I’m all for the league cracking down on this because it keeps the sport out of the courts. Do we really want judiciary members suing star players and coaches for defamation, as happened in 2008 when Melbourne’s Craig Bellamy and Brian Waldron blew up about Cameron Smith’s suspension?

Of course, as a journalist, I am on the side of free speech but also truth – and the judiciary is clearly not a kangaroo court. It might have structural flaws but it’s not corrupt.

Sam Burgess

Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images

My thoughts on Folau, on this platform, got widespread coverage earlier this year.

My point then was more about society – we keep trying to pick and choose what we want out of this ancient dogma and get upset when someone wants to be dogmatic.

Once we accept what religion is, we’ll find it easier to let it go.

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Folau’s comments on social media were not consistent with the values of his former employer and they are not consistent with those of the NRL. Fair enough. He’s on the outer.

But a rep team that is playing just two more games this year? He’ll be in camp for all of a fortnight. How much trouble can he get in with this fire and brimstone stuff?

Also, Tonga is a sovereign country and there is no record of the Rugby League International Federation refusing to clear a player for Test duty due to his social media musings or religious beliefs.

Unless Rugby Australia refuse him a clearance, it’s a procedural and precedent-creating minefield. The international governing body has never exercised that level of oversight before and would be under pressure with its three employees to now monitor Twitter for extreme views of all types from players, who range from highly paid NRL stars to park footballers in Serbia.

I’d let him play because I struggle to think of a water-tight premise for stopping him.

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Before I go, I shout out to Roar colleague AJ Mithen for his excellent column on media coverage of the NRL.

He says it won’t change because of the game’s current audience and the media’s pandering to that audience.

But AJ, your column would not have been written even ten years ago. The fact that you and several of your fellow columnists were thinking the same thing after the weekend’s matches proves that change is happening.

There is a groundswell, there is feeling from many – including me – that the sport can be repositioned demographically in our lifetimes.

The geek shall inherit the Earth.