I have been around rugby league pretty much my entire life.
I was taken to watch my dad play when I was two. I watched the local team when we moved to Northern NSW. I watched NRL. My earliest memory of league is watching the ’97 ARL grand final.
I played footy – union or league – most of my life growing up and was a part of a range of different dressing rooms run by different coaches and clubs. I love the game and the Roosters and I love being apart of a team.
But having today listened to Mia Freedman’s No Filter interview with Phoebe Burgess, it is more clear than it has ever been to me that the NRL, clubs, NRL media and dressing rooms from under-18s to the NRL are toxic and there has to be a change.
Phoebe spoke about a wide range of topics: the start of her relationship with Sam Burgess and the love story, how she felt the going to a game for the first time and the hierarchical nature of being a WAG and how for a lot of partners that was all that they could be, and for Phoebe, she felt it slowed down her career.
She spoke about the relationship and role that the women had within the club being that of keeping ‘their individual’ happy while providing “sex, cuddles and a photo opportunity.”
Phoebe spoke about having children and going from an independent woman to that of someone who the club expected to raise the children without complaint so Sam could concentrate on the game ahead. How the boys were given a night out alone to decompress and drink, whereas the women were given a dinner where the club still expected them to care for the children.
She spoke about the affairs that the Souths grand final hero had. The sexting scandal that came out and the cocaine use that police discovered in a roadside test while he was on his way to see their children.
While this is a story of a deteriorating marriage played out in public, Phoebe spoke about the role of the Rabbitohs and the NRL had in covering Sam’s affairs and complaints from over 30 women.
The role they had in gaslighting Phoebe to keep her in a marriage that turned out to be dangerous, how a club official rang Phoebe’s dad in an attempt to keep her in the relationship, making promises that behaviour would change.
She spoke about the club’s role in moving her down to a small town in country NSW where she couldn’t receive news, where she couldn’t be seen by the prying media and where they could tell her the story they wanted to spin. Phoebe spoke about how the club would cover up for certain players but there was a hierarchy for who could potentially expect a cover-up.
She spoke about how the media went into overdrive to paint her and Sam as the victims of women who had taken advantage of Burgess, or tricked him, in the case of the sexting story, which the woman stopped pursuing after media backlash.
How the media painted her as a trickster seeking money who targeted Sam Burgess. A story where she did not go to the police, she went to the club and NRL for help who then spun a story to Phoebe hide her from the truth and the media.
She also spoke about why she was talking to Mia Freedman, this interview being done after the Rabbitohs legend had won SAS Australia and how he had cried on TV admitting to his sins and telling a story that Phoebe says is not the truth and that she needed to tell her story.
Phoebe Burgess was strong, articulate and clearly intelligent and while I listened to this interview, I thought maybe it was a failure of the Rabbitohs. Maybe it was a failure because of who Sam Burgess was and his relationships within the game.
But if I was to stop and think about it on a deeper level, I had seen problems with country rugby league dressing rooms, sexist jokes, the putting down of women, the explicit discussion of women and the separation of partners from the club.
Stories of the star player being a known domestic abuser, but people within the club – sadly, myself included – not saying anything. All of this behaviour done in front of under-16s and 18s which is what I was at the time.
Seeing men in positions of power within the club teaches young men that the behaviour is either okay to do yourself or perhaps fine to ignore and cover up if needed.
I don’t think this is a league issue – I think it may be a male sports issue. I’ve heard similar talk in cricket, soccer and union dressing sheds. I have gone through years where I don’t play sports because I grow tired of the sexist talk and it’s easier to just not play.
The NRL and the NRL media, along with country rugby league, need to do better so we can be a leader among the codes.
My final thought would be to highlight something Phoebe said in her interview: being furious when she found out her ex-husband had tested positive for cocaine while on his way to care for his children.
She was not furious with Sam for making this choice, but with those around him for allowing him to do this. This is the clearest sign to me that the culture within a club consumes everyone who gets involved with it.
That a player is never responsible for his own actions and that his ex-wife still believes that after being – for lack of a better word – indoctrinated into the culture.