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Opinion

In the NRL, sorry seems to be the hardest word

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Editor
15th February, 2021
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When it comes to the punishment of off-field issues in the NRL, the lack of consistency can be confusing and frustrating.

Breaching the COVID bubble can mean a fine of anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000, as well as two weeks out of the game or none at all.

Lying to the Integrity Unit can get you a four-week stint on the sidelines or just two weeks, seemingly depending on which club you play for.

And where most justice systems see punishments increase in severity for recidivists, in the NRL second offences can see players wiped out of the game for months at a time, or receive a lesser sanction than what they copped for their first indiscretion.

Honestly, fronting the Integrity Unit seems a lot like trying to get a refund for a Margaritaville mixer.

Which is why it was disappointing but none too surprising to see the possibilities floated that Israel Folau would be allowed to return to the NRL – after Peter Beattie had categorically stated he would “not be considered for registration” – and that Shane Flangan could have his coaching suspension cut short, after the NRL had categorically stated they would “give no consideration to expediting his return to a head coaching role”.

We don’t need to delve into what these two did to put themselves in a position whereby their part in the game made headlines – if you’ve read this far, you’re across the respective stories.

Yet here we were, hearing Peter V’landys wheel out his five favourite words – “due process and natural justice” – as to why both Folau and Flanagan might be allowed to make early returns to the competition.

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Now when it comes to the likes of Folau and Flangan, plenty are quick to point out that their off-field issues were perhaps at the light end of the scale – that compared to acts of violence against another human being, which many other players have committed yet been allowed to play top-flight footy again, posting nasty things on social media and writing unsanctioned emails are barely a blip on the misbehaviour radar.

Perhaps, but do you know what those players who make criminal mistakes tend to say pretty quickly after the fact?

“Sorry.”

Apologising for your wrongdoing is a crucial part in people forgiving you and allowing you back into the fold, because you are acknowledging you’ve done the wrong thing. This requires self-reflection, empathy and humbling yourself in front of the party you have wronged.

But, of course, words are cheap, which is why you really need to show you’re sorry. This part obviously takes longer, as it’s your actions in similar situations over time that will show that you have were truly sorry to the point you have changed your behaviour.

And on these fronts, Folau and Flanagan have failed miserably.

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Israel Folau.

Israel Folau (Raymond Roig/AFP via Getty Images)

First we have Folau, who is so obviously not sorry for the damage he did with his online posts that they are still on his public accounts, all these years after the fact.

I’m happy he’s found God and that it seems to bring him peace. Honestly, it’s something I almost envy. But his ongoing failure to acknowledge the harm his words do and have done mean his reported promises not to do it again ring hollow.

He’s a serial offender when it comes to preaching about homosexuality – oddly quiet on the rest of the Bible’s outdated teachings, such as how it’s OK to own slaves and you should stone to death unmarried women who aren’t virgins – likely because every time he’s written about it, he’s thought, “Well, this is clearly true and correct, why wouldn’t I post it online for my hundreds of thousands of followers to see?”

Which is why promises to adhere to a strict set of social media guidelines doesn’t cut it with regards to getting him registered to play again. Ask the administrators he worked with in rugby – they tried this approach!

I’m not asking that Folau abandon his faith in the name of a game of footy. But he surely sees by now that choosing to preach one particular part of his faith – a part which cannot seriously be central to his beliefs, because he doesn’t spend his weekends at the Holy Church of Don’t Be Gay – does damage to untold thousands of people.

So apologise. Say “I’m sorry for speaking out on this issue and I won’t do it again.” You don’t need to delve into your thoughts or beliefs on the matter, just show contrition for blabbing about it and promise you won’t again.

Of course, then comes the part where you actually show you’re sorry.

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And this is where Shane Flanagan’s woes reside.

Because while he’s said he’s sorry – wrote a ten-page apology letter, apparently – we’ve heard this from him before.

Flanagan is barred from coaching at the moment because he breached the terms of his suspension the last time he was barred from holding a clipboard, after it was shown he had been in contact with club officials during his time out.

Sharks coach Shane Flanagan watches his team warm up

Shane Flanagan (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Know a great way to show that you’re not really sorry? Ignore the terms of the penance you’ve been told to serve after your last apology.

The kicker? His last ban was supposed to run from December 2013 to December 2014 but was lifted early, with then Head of Integrity Nick Weeks noting in October ‘14, “The NRL has been impressed with Mr Flanagan’s commitment to meeting the conditions set down for his return.”

Want to know what those “conditions set down for his return” were?

• Complete intensive education and training courses on workplace health and safety, the NRL rules and other integrity and ethical training;
• Demonstrate that he understands the duties of obligations of an NRL head coach; and
• Refrain from dealing directly or indirectly with the Sharks club, team and players.

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It’s not exactly ‘you had one job’ but three conditions aren’t arduous, yet Flanagan only saw fit to stick to two.

That’s not to say that Flanagan should never be allowed to coach first grade again, merely that he doesn’t deserve to be granted the favour of a shortened sentence.

Because he might say he’s sorry but he doesn’t show it.

So this time around, he can do his porridge – all of it – and if that means he misses out on a plumb coaching role that pops up this season, well that’s the price he pays for disobeying the rules and then thumbing his nose at his punishment.

Ultimately, we all make mistakes and we all hope that when we do, we can be forgiven.

But we need to acknowledge the error of our ways, apologise and then make amends.

Israel Folau hasn’t done the first two and Shane Flanagan hasn’t done the third.