The lack of consistency in punishing Nathan Cleary has been almost as embarrassing as his dancing.
On Monday night the NRL announced the Penrith halfback had been issued a further amended breach notice, proposing a fine of $30,000 and a two-match suspension.
(Cleary’s housemate, Tyrone May, also received a breach notice, but I’m choosing to leave him out of this story. Yes, May has been in trouble with the law regarding videos before, you’re not clever for pointing it out and any cheap comments will be deleted.)
Cleary initially copped a $10,000 fine and was banned for one match, although 60 per cent of the fine and the playing ban were suspended.
This was due to the fact a group of young ladies who Cleary said were his sister’s friends arrived at his residence unannounced on Anzac Day and he allowed them to come in for what he swore was just ten minutes.
As for why the Panther received such a light financial penalty compared to Josh Addo-Carr and Latrell Mitchell – who lost 50 grand each in fines for breaching social distancing, also with 60 per cent suspended – NRL interim CEO Andrew Abdo explained two weeks ago that Cleary’s visitors were there for a “very short, unplanned period of time”.
“What’s happened with Latrell and Josh, a planned holiday in which there were activities involving camping and a wide number of people and we’ve all seen on social media the activities they’ve got up to,” Abdo said.
“That’s very different to someone being at home.”
Well yeah, except Mitchell was at his home, but he still got a fine five times that of Cleary’s and the same as Addo-Carr. Regardless, with Addo-Carr and Mitchell deciding to take their licks and move on, I guess that’s the end of their part in this story.
But it wasn’t so neat a conclusion for Cleary, as footage emerged of him dancing with his female visitors, which flew in the face of his claim that “there was a photo that was taken that I had no idea about”.
So you actively participated in a series of videos, but a photo was the real surprise for you Nathan? That was the story he was sticking to when quizzed about his actions by the Daily Telegraph in late April.
“I messed up, I spoke to the Integrity Unit about what happened but they didn’t ask me about the TikTok videos, they just asked me about the pictures and I’ve already told them about that,” Cleary said.
Honestly, the social distancing breach didn’t bother me that much – I have no illusions that these are the only NRL players to have been within another person’s 1.5-metre personal bubble, this lot were just dumb enough to have it posted online.
So talk of sitting out the whole season as punishment was over the top.
On the flipside, a fine and suspended week off is a bit light, but it was the first time the Integrity Unit had dealt with the issue of players breaching social distancing – this was uncharted territory.
As Peter V’landys said, “we’ve given them the benefit of the doubt in this instance” while promising “the next one will be harsher”.
However, a player failing to show the Integrity Unit due respect – say, by lying to them, even if it was a lie of omission rather than actually telling direct porkies – is not new.
And based on established precedent, Cleary should now have the first four weeks of the restarted season on the sidelines. Because that was where Payne Haas spent the opening month of the 2019 season.
Last February, the Broncos announced they had fined their boom prop $20,000 and that he would not be available for selection until Round 5, as club CEO Paul White said they were “not happy with Payne’s level of co-operation with the Integrity Unit”.
Haas was facing the Integrity Unit over “family matters” – he himself hadn’t actually done anything wrong.
Nonetheless, the then-19-year-old received his heavy penalty after his “level of candour fell well short of his obligations”.
“The NRL worked with the Broncos on the matter and the proposed sanction, and supports the action announced by the club today,” an NRL spokesperson said.
So even though Brisbane decided on the punishment, it got the rubber stamp from HQ and therefore it must be the stock outcome when a player fails to show the requisite openness in dealing with the Integrity Unit.
And that’s exactly what Cleary did.
His failure to respect social distancing had already been made clear by the photos, so slapping him with a heavier punishment on that front because he also did some daggy dancing wouldn’t be fair.
But then Cleary was “untruthful in relation to material matters” with regards to “his co-operation with the NRL Integrity Unit”, as per the NRL’s media release on Monday.
In other words, his “level of candour fell well short of his obligations”, which is an issue completely separate to anything COVID-19 related, and one for which the standard has been set.
That Cleary has been remorseful and has a clean record has nothing to do with it – Haas was and is a cleanskin, and he was being grilled about the actions of his family, which must have been an impossible position for a teenager.
But while the Broncos acknowledged all this, the club decided to make a stand.
“We have a duty to protect the reputation of our club and our game – and that is why we have handed down the significant sanctions that we have,” White said.
While the reasons they fronted the Integrity Unit and presumably the way they conducted themselves are different, the crime for both Haas and Cleary appears the same, so their punishments should reflect that.
It was a bit off that Cleary was dealt with so lightly to begin with compared to Mitchell and Addo-Carr, that he now gets a follow-up punishment equal to half of what Haas received is manifestly unfair.
If the Integrity Unit is to command the respect and standing it requires to be effective, then it needs to discipline players with consistency – and unless the judiciary amends all punishments for the rest of 2020’s matches, then the fact the season is set to be shortened has nothing to do with uniformity in punishment.
Four weeks. It’s what Payne Haas got, so it’s what Nathan Cleary deserves.