In the wake of reports Jack de Belin was in line to be St George Illawarra’s captain this week, it’s fair to say there is a big discrepancy between what some coaches think the imaginary armband actually means and how the rest of us see the significance of the role.
These days we jump on evidence of dramatically different perceptions to our own. We have handy catchphrases like ‘read the room’ and ‘tone deaf’. We personalise decisions, just as we personalise everything today.
Everyone has been turned into an allegory; any piece of raw information that doesn’t polarise, provoke and install an overly obvious hero and villain is not worth knowing.
So let’s play along.
What does it say about Anthony Seibold that Matt Lodge was considered captaincy material at Brisbane, or Mark Murray that he made Rodney Howe skipper in Melbourne or Anthony Griffin if he wanted De Belin with the small ‘c’ next to his name this week?
Firstly, we need to address who a captain is and what his duties entail.
20 years ago, the league would put out a media guide at the start of the year and all the captains, coaches and CEOs’ phone numbers were included.
The captain had to do more talking than any other player. If he saw skeletons every time he went to grab a coat from the cupboard, they would soon become a distraction for the whole team.
Now, the captain goes to the post-match media conference but otherwise can escape with doing no more media than anyone else and most of that media is stage-managed and sterile.
Captains used to speak at post-match functions across at the leagues club after games, usually with a schooner or two on board. These days they’re in recovery mode at home quaffing protein shakes.
So from the point of view of a Griffin, Seibold or Murray – if they were considering the issue in 2021 – it should be easier to hide a guy with an awkward off-field narrative and make him skipper just because he would do a good job on the field.
Except it isn’t.
This is where we get what appears a jaundiced grasp on reality, the sort of thing that these days gets us hitting our keyboard and phone pads so hard they need replacing.
This is the blood that runs through the veins of social media; the indignation at someone who inhabits our niche interest but sees reality so dramatically different to us.
Not only was de Belin’s personality obliterated by his much-publicised court appearances but he was also deeply involved in BBQ-gate and misled the club over it.
Howe was a proven drug cheat, suspended for 22 weeks. Lodge went on a rampage in New York and was charged with assault and faced a $2 million lawsuit.
I’ve lost count of how many columns I’ve written about community and corporate expectations of highly-paid athletes. On one hand, you can look at abstract theories of how we want our sportsmen to be actors in some great morality play.
But more pragmatically, they sit at the top of a volunteer pyramid and so they represent those volunteers who made sacrifices to get them there. As a result, the level of behaviour expected is very similar to the level we impose on elected officials (okay, we arguably don’t expect as much of elected officials as we did even two years ago).
Rugby league is the sport of redemption, there’s no doubt about that. It keeps some people out of jail. But for those who have cast themselves as villains, improved behaviour following acceptance is one thing.
Leadership – which involves representing a brand that has meant something to generations of people and which benefits from government, corporate and media support – should be reserved for those who have always been goodies, never villains.