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The debate around Morrison's Eels visit misses the point

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Roar Guru
30th March, 2021
39

I know, I know. “Don’t mix politics and sport!” But seeing as it was a politician who entered the Parramatta changing room (access only granted owing to his political position), and the subsequent fallout from staff Tweets, this situation is beyond depoliticising.

From a purely sporting point of view, I simply don’t understand the thought process behind Scott Morrison meeting with the Eels’ players. Maybe I become over-emotional, maybe he’s just a better loser than I, but as a fan, I certainly wouldn’t possess the mental wherewithal to enter the inner sanctum of the players that had just done my lot over.

For matters pertaining to the more serious situation, the key issue is that the leader of the Commonwealth government took time to watch rugby league (and also some AFL for good measure) after claiming earlier he had no time to attend women’s marches. Whether or not he went into the changing rooms for a few minutes after is almost immaterial to the debate.

Or it would have been, had images of the visible displeasure on display by Parramatta’s sports scientist Tahleya Eggers not taken over the internet. Her now deleted (of her own volition) social media replies to said image, plus the official Parramatta account proclaiming the Prime Minister as ‘ours’, have brought this issue to the fore for the game.

But ultimately, this is just one small microcosm of a constantly developing story. It is one that has been thrust to the front and centre of the political world recently, but nevertheless an uncomfortable reality for so many women in Australia and around the world since time immemorial.

For right or for wrong, rugby league has a reputation in some quarters for producing unsavoury characters pertaining to their behaviour towards women. But recent lurid tales from the corridors of power, and the outpouring of public expression in its wake, have revealed that rugby league only mirrors what happens in the rest of society.

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This is acknowledgement of the limits for rugby league to enact change, but not an excuse to avoid any sort of meaningful action. Sport can make societal changes, by the power of leadership, inspiration and the values on display.

As the NRL has made steps in the right direction with Indigenous involvement and recognition, is it not reasonable to seek a similar programme towards equalising attitudes to women? This shouldn’t involve the interchangeable transliteration of First Peoples’ initiatives to the scope of women’s rights – separate male and female competitions partly see to that.

I look to Papua New Guinea for potential solutions. It goes without saying that the country ranked as one of the worst places for a woman to live is not entirely analogous with Australian society. But as Joanna Lester’s excellent Power Meri documentary notes, the idea of having female role-models in a macho sport can be used to spread the message of respect and equanimity.

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Seeing female referees, pundits, and coaches will all make an impact on some contemporary thinking. But what will make far more difference going forward would be to introduce these female role-models to junior rugby league.

Anyone with a vague remembrance of their young days on the pitch will remember the adages of “respect the ref” and “play to the whistle.” The logical consequence of having more women referees at junior levels, with more women coaches as figures of authority and respect, would have at least some impacts?

Is it beyond the realms of possibility for the sport to introduce pathways, make it easier logistically and holistically to welcome more women in developmental roles for the next generation? The younger these figures are introduced, the better – before absurd notions of innate female inferiority can be developed.

The separation of politics and sport is an ideal to be strived for, but sometimes their coalescence is inescapable. It serves no one any good to blissfully ignore such a reality and hope for the situation to resolve itself.

Only by acknowledging this story, as a microcosm of wider Australian society, can rugby league seek to forge ahead with its own plan. The rising mood change should be enough to force the game’s custodians into greater action of its own volition.

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