Opinion: Culture, Image and Australian Rugby League
Martyn Sadler, the editor of Rugby League Express newspaper, defends Australian Rugby League against one of its own media stars…
Why do we panic so much about Rugby League’s image every time an Australian player is found to have done something silly?
This week the Australian Rugby League media have been wetting themselves about a player who has literally wet himself. The Aussies have been wondering whether the game has a future, after a photograph of Cronulla player Todd Carney apparently trying to urinate into his own mouth, and taken in a public convenience, was circulated on Twitter.
For many writers in Australia, Carney’s indiscretion was symptomatic of Rugby League as a whole. The sport is supposedly awash with incidents of this sort, and we should all feel ashamed about them, and ashamed of Rugby League.
And we need to clamp down even harder to try to ensure they don’t happen again.
“Any sport played by young men mainly in their twenties is going to occasionally find that a minority of participants go off the rails. It always was the case, and it always will be.”
Steve Mascord is widely acknowledged as one of the best of the Australian Rugby League journalists. He also writes for Rugby League World magazine.
Earlier this week Steve wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald entitled, “Rugby league, your image stinks, fix it”.
In some respects it was a bizarre article, purportedly in response to a tweet by a player-agent asking, “When did your shit stop stinking?”
So excuse me for repeating Steve’s response on that same theme.
“My excrement certainly does still stink,” he writes.
“I have and do perform acts which are drunken, stupid, sometimes even illicit and illegal. But it has never occurred to me to deposit that excrement in a shoe. I have never thought of simulating a sex act with an animal for a photo. The idea of imitating a drinking fountain, substituting my own urine for water, has not entered my head.”
In that latter paragraph Steve is referring to indiscretions by Julian O’Neill in 1999, Joel Monaghan in 2010 and Carney last weekend.
And Steve really puts the boot into Rugby League players generally, not just the ones who are guilty of misdemeanours.
“Rugby league’s popularity in NSW and Queensland ferments ignorance. Players have no concept of the extent to which many, many people in this country look down on them as ‘meatheads’ playing a ‘low-rent’ sport. You think you are stars but to a large part of Australian society, you are lamentable outcasts,” writes Steve.
“How do you think it would feel to be an unpaid development officer in Hobart, running on chook raffles and borrowed goalpost pads, when the only time you make the local press is when an NRL player defecates in a hallway? This is the sport you are devoting all your spare time to? These guys are on a fortune and you’re being paid nothing?”
Well, I would imagine that the unpaid development officer in Hobart would know far more about Rugby League than to believe that individual incidents reported in a media that is often hostile to our game were truly representative of the culture of Rugby League.
Steve rounds off his article with the following sentence.
“After 119 years of wallowing in its own slime, the game is now at a point where it can either finally escape, or stay there forever.”
It’s a strange article, that was inevitably made the lead story on Rugby League on the website of The Age, the sister paper of the Sydney Morning Herald in the Aussie Rules stronghold of Melbourne. The way to guarantee a Rugby League headline in that newspaper is to write something that trashes the sport.
And plenty of people from other sports in competition with Rugby League were prepared to heap praise on the article. They love nothing more than an article that tears Rugby League apart.
I’ve been involved in Rugby League for more years than I care to remember. I think I know as much about the culture of the game as anybody. And, as a publisher, I know quite a bit about its image too.
And I would be a fool to suggest that the game, wherever it is played, doesn’t sometimes have its problems with player misbehaviour.
Any sport played by young men mainly in their twenties is going to occasionally find that a minority of participants go off the rails. It always was the case, and it always will be.
“Rugby League, whether in Australia or anywhere else, is and always has been a great force for good in society. And I think it’s important that we make that point. No sport has Rugby League’s record for giving opportunities to all sections of society, including the most disadvantaged, while other sports have rejected them.”
And if any other sport tries to deny that possibility, then that sport is living in a fantasy world.
Having said that, the Carney incident seems a fairly minor one to me.
It was clearly a foolish prank, and his mistake was doing it when someone had a mobile-phone camera pointed at him. That is a danger that we all face nowadays if we do something foolish in a public or semi-public place.
It’s a thing for Carney to live down, and the best response from the rest of us is to shrug our shoulders while hoping that he has learned a lesson.
Many years ago, incidentally, I was the manager of the Great Britain Students Rugby League side, and we had a player who was a medical student, and could perform the same trick as Carney. He insisted that to be able to perform it was the sign of a healthy prostate gland, and he is now a highly respected surgeon. Fortunately that was in the pre-mobile phone era.
But should we all feel ashamed of Rugby League because of what Carney has done?
But back to Steve Mascord. Steve is an Australian journalist who now seems to feel ashamed of Rugby League.
So let me ask him whether he feels ashamed to be Australian after the conviction of Rolf Harris for sex crimes?
And does he feel ashamed to be a journalist after the conviction of former ‘News of the World’ editor Andy Coulson in the recent phone-hacking trial?
If he is a cricket fan, does he feel ashamed because some England cricketers openly urinated during the night on the cricket square at The Oval after their Ashes win last year?
I suspect that Steve would answer in the negative to all three questions.
So why write that way about Rugby League?
I suppose he would say that there is a series of stories about players doing dumb things. And it’s true, in Sydney a Rugby League player can’t go down a quiet cul-de-sac for a quick leak without it being front-page news in the following day’s newspapers.
Fortunately for the other codes in Sydney, the whole attention of the Sydney media, in so far as they deal in sporting scandal stories, is fixed on Rugby League. Scandals in other sports are not treated in the same way.
In Yorkshire, on the other hand, where I am based, we have the Tour de France beginning this week in Leeds.
And as I write this article the news comes through that Daryl Impey, who became the first South African to wear the yellow jersey in Tour de France history last year, is just the latest cyclist to fail a drugs test.
Cycling has been laced with drug scandals in recent years. They make Rugby League’s problems look like kid’s stuff by comparison.
And yet I haven’t seen any articles written about cycling with the venom that Steve seemingly reserves for Rugby League.
And what about politics?
The UK’s Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has been charged by the police for driving off after hitting and damaging a car without stopping to check the damage. He has been charged with and has admitted failing to stop at the scene of an accident.
Can you imagine what would happen to an NRL player who was charged with that offence? He would be subjected virtually to a hate campaign in the media, which would urge his sacking.
Fortunately for Ed Balls, the political and media world in the UK has a more realistic view of his indiscretion than the sporting media in Sydney, and he has kept his job, although his offence is, on the face of it, more serious than Carney’s. But it won’t stop him being the Chancellor of the Exchequer if the Labour Party wins the next election.
And then we have association football. Where can we begin to write about the indiscretions associated with that sport?
Blatant cheating on the field, stories of match-fixing off it, and the chief executive of the FA Premier League, Richard Scudamore, writing sexist emails that denigrate women. At least Todd Carney hasn’t done that, to my knowledge. But unlike Carney, Scudamore kept his job.
Steve writes about the image of Rugby League, and it’s true that Rugby League’s image in Australia seems to suffer from an undue concentration on some incidents that other sports don’t seem to get nailed for, although we might think that those sports are far more deserving of a stinking image than Rugby League.
Image is one thing, though, and reality is another.
Rugby League, whether in Australia or anywhere else, is and always has been a great force for good in society. And I think it’s important that we make that point.
No sport has Rugby League’s record for giving opportunities to all sections of society, including the most disadvantaged, while other sports have rejected them.
In Arthur Beetson Australian Rugby League has a native Australian captain when Aboriginal people couldn’t get a break anywhere else in Australian society. In England, we had a black captain of Great Britain in Clive Sullivan before a black player ever played association football for England.
We do give opportunities to players who may not be well educated, or who perhaps come from disadvantaged family backgrounds. And Rugby League gives players from that background the opportunity to be respected in the wider society for their tremendous athletic achievements in probably the hardest sport of all.
“It was clearly a foolish prank, and his mistake was doing it when someone had a mobile-phone camera pointed at him. That is a danger that we all face nowadays if we do something foolish in a public or semi-public place.”
And, as we’ve seen with Alex McKinnon, Rugby League tries very hard to take care of those players who need help.
That is the essence of Rugby League, and the image clearly needs to catch up with the reality.
But it won’t do if our leading Rugby League writers simply want to stick the boot in when there are publishers antagonistic to Rugby League who are only too keen to give them the space to do so.