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Opinion

We must all do better to address rugby league's harmful treatment of women

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Roar Guru
19th October, 2021
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2065 Reads

When a footy player makes the headlines for the wrong reasons, a little voice inside my head says, “oh no, not again.”

A scuffle in a bar, footage of recreational drugs being used, another COVID breach – we shake our heads, shrug our shoulders, the player in question fronts the media with a scripted apology, and then we all seem to move on.

But when the incident involves a woman? That’s when I shudder the most. And then I watch for all the terrible reactions.

There are usually two types of responses. You have the first group that pigeonhole the entire sport saying, “What did you expect? All NRL players are the same! Sexist, cheating, sleazy womanisers!”

And then we have another group, filled with fans of the player or the team he plays for or are just lovers of the game, who say, “But he is such a good player! He’s so funny in interviews! He seems like such a good guy! There must be more to the story. I bet she asked for it. I’m sure she deserved it.”

Both reactions are so very wrong.

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The first one incorrectly stereotypes. You cannot paint everyone who runs out onto the field with the same brush. The majority are decent men who love their families, do a lot for charity and their community, and respect women.

It doesn’t help the sport grow either. We want more fans in the stands, more memberships for the clubs, but most importantly we want parents to be comfortable to sign their sons and daughters up to play the greatest game of all. Saying all players are bad people is unfair and damaging.

The second reaction though is worse. Turning a blind eye to an incident or refusing to believe it’s true because we are a fan of the player is just so harmful.

We all know ‘a nice guy’ that has done something wrong. Because of who he is – or who we thought he was – we don’t want to believe the claims.

When a player is accused of hurting or disrespecting a woman, the excuses and justifications from fans of why it was OK, why it was obviously her fault or why there was no way it could have happened are disgusting.

And many believe that for every incident we do hear about, there are so many more that we don’t, which are dealt with in boardrooms with chequebooks.

Earlier this year, Api Koroisau cheated on his wife, sneaking a woman into the NSW State of Origin camp. Tyrone May was found guilty of recording and sharing a video of he and a woman having sex without her knowledge.

Apisai Koroisau of the Panthers

Apisai Koroisau (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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Both were cheered on like heroes by their supporters during Penrith’s grand final win, and ironically wore the Panthers’ pink ‘Women in League’ jersey throughout the season.

After the grand final, May put a post on Instagram, trying to make out that he had overcome what others had said about him.

“And the dirt that they threw on my name/turned to soil and I grew up out it/time for y’all to figure out what y’all gon’ do about it”.

The post, which received love and support from his fellow Panthers, was highly criticised and May took it down. All the while, his victim sees a physiologist, suffers from panic attacks and is paranoid to walk around Penrith in case she is recognised from the video.

So, you know, they have both suffered.

This past weekend, Phoebe Burgess went on the record with The Australian about her tumultuous marriage to NRL superstar Sam Burgess.

From accounts of infidelity by her husband, as well as drug and alcohol-fuelled episodes, one that led to a physical altercation.

Phoebe was twice tested for STIs during her second pregnancy after Sam admitted to having unprotected sex with other women.

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She also went on to explain how much gets covered up by the clubs, and how they would twist the story to make the player look like the victim.

“This kind of manipulation is what stops other women coming forward when they feel they’ve been violated. What chance does one woman have against a PR machine?”

But despite everything that she went through, Phoebe is not acting out to get back at her ex. She is trying to show the other side of the rugby league world, show how much the NRL covers up, and hopefully that this can change.

“I want to challenge some very powerful people to look at their own behaviour, to look at the way they handled the situation, the role they played in all of this,” she said. “Silence is the refuge of abusers, the refuge of perpetrators. It gives them the perfect cover.”

Sam was recently on the reality show SAS Australia and confessed through tears about his past. “I’ve lost my career, my kids and marriage… there was a police investigation into me. Turned to drinking, drugs. I’ve lost it all… I wasn’t the greatest husband… I embarrassed my wife.”

People felt sorry for him. Said he was brave to admit what he had done. Wanted to believe he really wants to do better.

After Phoebe shared her side, this is some of the public reaction on Twitter …

“If she wasn’t married to Sam, she’d be a nobody.”

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“A generation that doesn’t accept personal responsibility, it’s always someone else’s fault.”

“Negative Nancy should be her name. So she isn’t in the spotlight, has to have her five seconds of fame.”

“She knew what she was getting into with rugby (league) players, she knew, now it goes wrong and wants to play dumb. Sorry.”

“You were a nobody before Sam and you should be a nobody now. WAGS are the worst of the lot.”

“This is the new norm, everything is a boys club when things don’t go your way – any chance you actually take some responsibility?”

Just, wow.

I know that not all women are innocent, just like not all footy players are bad. Josh Reynolds’ ex-partner Arabella Del Busso faked three pregnancies because their relationship was on its last legs, and she didn’t want him to leave her.

But unfortunately, it seems that there are more incidents where the man is the offender. And in the case of NRL players, they seem to be a protected species. And the clubs and fans enable this.

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This is not an “I am woman hear me roar” piece. That’s not who I am. I absolutely love rugby league.

There is so much good that comes from the game and so many great men involved with it. I have grown up around it my whole life, it is in my DNA, and all I have ever wanted to do is spend my days writing about it.

But I know it’s not perfect, and we have a long way to go to even get close to perfect, especially when it comes to women.

We need to stop allowing sports stars to think they are above everyone else. That what they do on the field is enough to excuse how they act off it.

When we put footy players on a pedestal and give them unconditional support, we grant them a golden ticket to behave however they want.

When we turn a blind eye to a player’s actions because he wears our teams’ colours, it stops victims from feeling they will be believed.

When an incident gets swept under the rug by those in business suits, and a woman is offered hush money, the players will always feel protected.

When a woman is made to feel that it was her fault and she shouldn’t have expected much from a footy star, players will continue to do the wrong thing.

Supporters – please do better.

Players – please do better.

The NRL – please do better.

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