Tuesday, May 21

Outlawing violence in league

Brawling in rugby league has been a hallmark of the game for several generations and is as synonymous as faking injuries in soccer. “Bring back the biff!” Is an often cited catchphrase, along with the unspoken code of, ‘whatever happens on the field, stays on the field’. But it doesn’t, does it? Especially when it’s televised and everyone is talking about it the next day. It becomes part of a highlights reel and a wider collective conversation. The very physical nature of this sporting code has often allowed the type of violence that would never be acceptable in the context of our modern society, off the pitch. And because league players are also often closely linked to boxing, the lines continue to blur even further.

The NRL players union has worked hard to provide player contracts that ensure fair treatment, good working conditions and a code of conduct.  Sure, it’s probably a fairly different workplace than most nine to five jobs. But if I punch someone within my workplace, there’s a better than average chance I’ll be fired, and the matter referred to the police. So why is it any different for professional rugby league players, particularly when it’s televised and there’s video evidence of the event?

Long gone are halcyon days of watching Kevin Tamati dish out a sideline belting to his Aussie counterpart, Greg Dowling. Yet those scenes still resonate and sit vividly in the minds of most league lovers because they continued to grace our screens for decades, whenever Sky was promoting an upcoming game between our two league loving nations. At the time, there was symbolism attached for all Kiwi supporters living vicariously through Tamati, giving our pig headed neighbour what they had coming to them. Same with Kevin Campion’s dust-up with Shane Webcke where Warriors supporters relished watching those Broncos get their just desserts. There’s something tribal and primal about it.

But, we need to move on. Times have changed, and so have the tastes of a growing audience. Personally, I don’t really enjoy watching the game with my kid when that sort of carry on takes place, because it normalises violent behavoiur to them.

It makes sense in boxing and fighting codes where the sport requires you to strike your opponent with fists and kicks in order to accumulate points or score a knockout. The audience also understands and appreciate these expectations, as do the athletes involved. That’s what they’ve signed up for. But there’s absolutely no requirement for it in league. The audience haven’t tuned in to watch a fight.

Rugby league has been a professional sport for over 30 years. It’s time we took the next step and removed unnecessary violence from the games altogether. But how?

Now I’m not a lawyer but my understanding is that it would take a player to press charges against anyone that assaulted them on the field. Which ain’t likely to happen in the NRL. Clubs wouldn’t want their star players heading to prison, and the NRL knows the ratings are better off with the element of thuggery involved in State of Origin and grudge matches. But a case needs to be made that the NRL is not providing a safe environment for players to apply their work. So could a player or players union sue the NRL over an unsafe work environment? Would they? Because despite years of fines and suspensions, it still hasn’t gotten rid of violence from the game. And no one is prepared to do anything about it. The NRL needs to therefore impose brutal sanctions for any violence on the field if they are serious about drawing a wider audience. Suspend an instigator for an entire season. A person should be at least able to defend themselves.

I do think there is a time and a place for young men needing to blow off some steam. But put some gloves on and get in a ring. There’s just no place for it anymore during a game.

It’s time to eliminate unnecessary violence from rugby league and stop normalising violent behaviour. Because if we don’t, we will continue to see the disappointing statistics of assault and domestic violence that are reflected from within our communities.