Just over a week since the NRL announced that the women’s premiership will be postponed until early next year due to COVID, I’m still extremely disappointed.
When it came to the NRLW, the NRL was caught between a rock and a hard place.
A hub environment would not have been fair or appropriate for several reasons.
Let’s begin with the giant elephant in the room: coronavirus.
Several women signed to NRLW clubs are from Sydney LGAs of concern. How difficult would it have been to get them exemptions to travel to Queensland, particularly given that the health advice suggests that New South Wales has not reached the peak of the virus yet.
Even if exemptions could have been given, it is neither fair nor appropriate to ask women to relocate for up to three months for a competition that only lasts six weeks.
Their pay is not that of full-time professional athletes, even though many of them have that commitment to their craft. Many NRLW players are primary caregivers for children, have jobs and lack the financial security to walk away from their work for three months.
Why the women’s competition cannot proceed, when every stop seems to have been pulled out to ensure that the men’s competition does, comes down to a more fundamental conversation we need to have about how to ensure that women are valued and paid appropriately for their commitment.
But it’s not really about what I think is fair and appropriate, is it? The players’ wants and needs are the most important consideration here.
According to reports from Katie Brown, the NRL conducted a player poll with NRLW players several weeks ago: “75 per cent voted relocation, that was ignored.”
I would be interested whether the number of players willing to relocate has changed from when that survey was conducted in the face of the evolving public health situation.
And while a majority may have been willing to relocate, what about the remainder? How would the competition plug a talent gap of 25 per cent?
When there were conversations earlier in the year about equalisation of talent, I argued that it would be unfair to ask athletes who are not full-time professionals to relocate “for the good of the game”. How is asking them to relocate any different?
But the conversations over the last couple of days have raised another important consideration.
Where was the athlete voice in the decision-making process?
Since the announcement about the postponement, players such as Ali Brigginshaw, Chelsea Lenarduzzi and Kennedy Cherrington have spoken out about how disappointed they are.
They aren’t disappointed about the postponement per se (well, they are), but about how the NRL handled it.
It’s clear there has not been enough conversation between the NRL and this playing group. It’s not enough to ask for feedback; you have to close the loop, and be open and transparent with the players about why decisions are being made.
Additionally, there is the question of payments for work already done to prepare for the season. For some women in precarious financial situations, or who have deferred work, it’s important to consider this when thinking about their pay cycle.
It’s here that the Rugby League Players’ Association (RLPA) has a really important role. There is an opportunity for them to work with the NRL towards a stronger position for the women’s game.
While postponement was the most appropriate option, the little things – and the free things – like communication could be done a lot better.
Ahead of 2022 and the “bumper season” promised by the NRL, there must be a meeting of the minds between the administration, the players and the RLPA, because at the moment there seems to be misalignment.
Next year will be the biggest year in women’s rugby league history. The plan is for two NRLW competition – one at the start of the year to address the 2021 postponement and then the planned season for 2022 – the All Stars fixture, State of Origin and the Rugby League World Cup.
But how do we provide our players with contract security? How do we manage their load, given many will not played footy in months and then are expected to go into a full calendar? What about players who need to relocate twice?
These all need to be considered.
As fans, it is easy to feel helpless in this situation, but we have a role to play too.
If you say you love and care about the women’s game, buy a membership and get along to games live when the competition goes ahead. Eyeballs and bums on seats go a long way in demonstrating interest. Do your part to show your commitment to the women’s game.
Another group that has an important role to play is the rugby league media. There have been calls for NRL players to be better advocates for the women’s game.
But a damn good start would be to see some of the male journalists involved in the game speak up on these important issues too.