Rugby league’s origin story as a sport in Australia has long been mythologised as a bunch of amateur sportsmen playing in front of local crowds in the suburban streets of Sydney and Brisbane.
For many decades the players themselves worked among the rest of the community during the week and would don their beloved jerseys only after their bosses let them out. Maybe they got a few bob for playing the game but for most players it was simply a matter of pride, and that working-class attitude and community connection was what ingratiated the sport to its fans and why it quickly overtook union in popularity.
The culture around rugby league has changed dramatically since this foundation was built in the early 20th century. In the 1950s the Dragons pioneered a new level of player professionalism that was begrudgingly (after the famous 11 premierships in a row) copied by the rest of the league, and a little bit of that amateur feeling was lost.
Then in the 1990s the next major shift occurred when squabbles over money and television rights threatened to tear the game in half. The scars from this fight are still visible to this day but at least now the players are paid more fairly for their role in creating the bountiful riches for the television companies broadcasting the game.
These changes would mostly be regarded as positive by both the fans and the media. The increased professionalism and training regimes have led to explosive athleticism that makes the NRL one of the best sports to watch in the world. The addition of good salaries for the players has given them a fair piece of the pie that their stunts and exploits on the field create for broadcasters.
So why, with all these great improvements bringing us into the 21st century as a sport, does the NRL constantly make the most bizarre and amateur level administrative decisions when it comes to who it lets play and manage the sport?
There is no one player or figure that is bigger than the sport and yet the way the NRL registers contracts of convicted cheats, sex offenders and violent criminals might make you think otherwise.
Russell Packer stomped on a defenceless man’s head and was quickly welcomed back into the game after a short prison sentence. Matt Lodge harassed and attacked innocent tourists and bystanders yet was registered as a player almost immediately upon release and was even being talked about as a potential captain for the Broncos. Zane Tetevano bashed his girlfriend on multiple occasions and yet was given a new lease of life at the Roosters, where he won multiple premierships.
Playing in the NRL is not a right, it is an opportunity that should be fiercely guarded. Everyone deserves a second chance, yes, but that does not mean they should get that chance through the NRL.
The NRL hosts a public sporting competition that many children, adults and businesses look to for inspiration and role models. The fact the NRL continues to not understand the damage that signing these people does to its own brand is astounding and very revealing. The NRL may have come a long way in terms of the sporting talents on display and the compensation those players receive, but it is still stuck in those early days when it comes to administration.
Do I think what Israel Folau has done is as bad as those violent offences? Of course not. But I also think that his views are hateful and endorsing them by registering his contract sends a bad message to any and all who watch.
It doesn’t have to be this way, either. The NRL does not need these players for it to be a fantastic competition. The vast majority of players do nothing even close to these terrible acts and the quality is there to replace these outliers who behave badly anyway.
For some reason, the NRL is still exceptionally bad at handling its own image and the players and figures that operate inside its competition. This is no longer the early 1900s. We have moved on and the game is still great but it can be so much better.
Do I think Israel Folau will be allowed back so quickly? My response is simply this: Shane Flanagan was given an indefinite ban for cheating and was allowed back into a managerial position within a year.
If the NRL thinks it can squeeze some publicity and money out of Folau, and they no doubt do, then recent history says they will. If only they looked a bit further back in history to see how the game evolved for the better and took some notes on how to become a bit more professional themselves.