Friday, July 19

Why the NRL referees association is playing with fire and the problem with calling out unconscious bias

Jason Paris’ tweets have echoed our past two articles, and while I’m grateful and admire that someone with his status has come out swinging for the club in acknowledging this issue of unconscious bias, he admittedly could have chosen his words better at the time.

But that’s what happens in the heat of the moment, right? Which is why I’m concerned with the referee’s association ignoring the potential of any unconscious bias in their ranks. Because by brushing this aside, they risk a backlash that could sadly result in someone getting hurt. 

Let me explain. 

The problem with unconscious bias is that nobody wants to acknowledge they have one. I’m a white male. I grew up in South Auckland in a state house, raised by a solo mother who was on the benefit until I was eleven years old. I’ve struggled to make ends meet over the years myself, but have eventually found a steady paying gig, have a mortgage, family, etc. Then one day, despite everything I’ve overcome, I’m told that I’ve been privileged this whole time because I’m white. Basically, most of my experience has been advantaged compared to many others in our society, including white women. Often a job I applied for may have come down to me and a few others, but I got it simply because I am a white man. Often, I would have been served at a bar before someone else because I am a white man, etc, etc. 

A lot of white men understandably didn’t take this news too well. Because they woke up one day to be told everything they thought they had earned fair and square, they hadn’t. They were now told they had always had an unspoken and unconscious advantage. It’s kinda like we were told we had cheated in life, yet we didn’t even know it.

That’s a lot to process, particularly when you’ve never felt as though you had any privilege. In the eyes of most white guys, privilege is something reserved for the wealthy or those with high status. Not the working and middle classes. 

Inevitably, it takes a little time to comprehend it. To mourn it. Everything you thought you knew, kind of isn’t. There’s literally a grieving process that you need to work through and grow to understand the other perspective, to realise the truth that’s been in front of you the whole time. The shame and guilt of not realising it. And learning to accept this and ensure there’s change. 

So, when the Warriors fans and sponsor accuse the referees of unconscious bias, that’s no doubt challenging for them to accept in the first place, let alone ever acknowledge it or even have to deal with it. Because it threatens the very core of the game and their role within it.

In some ways maybe they feel as though they can’t acknowledge it because what would that mean for the integrity of the sport? They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place and it’s something they may never genuinely come to terms with.

I don’t personally believe there is any conspiracy among referees or the NRL to keep the Warriors down. Trying to maintain that as a secret would be almost impossible. But I do believe there’s unconscious bias at play, and not just against the NZ side.

Every referee would have grown up idolising a club, so when they ref against that club, there’s no doubt a part of them that gives the 50/50 calls for their favourite team. But the difference is that the Warriors are a NZ side. Every ref will undoubtedly have a small bias towards Australian sides, unless a team that their favoured club have always had a rivalry with, happen to be playing the Warriors. This is just human nature. And it takes work to acknowledge and overcome those biases.

The problem for the referees though, is that if they choose to ignore the very possibility of unconscious bias, they look like a pack of frustrated white men preferring to ignore what is standing right in front of them. In doing so, they risk the ire of a loyal fanbase that could have potentially harmful consequences.  

Most of us that enjoy the game are relatively stable and sane people, but sport has a way of firing up our tribalism. Jason Paris’ tweets are case in point. This is the CEO of one of New Zealand’s biggest companies and he lost his shit on Twitter at what he saw as on-field injustices against his tribe. 

That’s now been compounded by the referee’s association questioning his accusations and threatening legal action. It could have been done and dusted so easily. But instead of saying “Hey, thanks Jason. We’ll look into it”, they’ve totally rejected it and now risk putting their referees in harm’s way.

As the CEO of the Warriors leading sponsor, Jason’s words carry some weight. They will have galvanised the fanbase, even emboldened them. So, what happens when those referees turn up to Mt Smart stadium and make a few poor decisions through no fault of their own? You’ve seen how a reasonable man like Jason reacted over Twitter. What happens when someone less stable, who has tied their identity to the Warriors club, feels entitled or emboldened enough to walk out onto the field to rectify the injustice themselves? Now I hope that never happens, but if the fanbase feels ignored, you’d be foolish not to expect a reaction. 

My hope is that the reaction is in the good humour that Kiwis and ex-pats are known for. And I have little doubt they are going to see a reaction from them in the form of amusing banners around the stadium and chants of “bias” every time they get one blatantly wrong, especially if this issue continues to play out in the media. But the referee’s association haven’t done themselves any favours and have potentially opened up a hornet’s nest. 

Plenty of supporters over the years that I’ve engaged with have stopped watching the Warriors because they get so frustrated with the poor officiating. I know older guys with heart problems that wouldn’t dare watch a game these days for the risk of putting themselves in the hospital. Many fans feel left with no other option but to walk away from the sport. 

How does the NRL expect to grow the game in NZ, if fans feel consistently so disempowered and slighted? It makes little to no sense commercially for the NRL to conspire against the Warriors. They are going to make more revenue from the Warriors making the Top 8 than from the Sharks or another Sydney side being there. Former Warriors and NRL CEO, Jim Doyle, has doused the flames recently by acknowledging this and we all know the NRL is about revenue. However, it appears Graham Annesley would rather take legal action against Paris than look into the issues he has raised.

If the NRL decide to indirectly punish Jason Paris by fining or disciplining the Warriors, what are the implications if One NZ pull their sponsorship? Could Paris pull the sponsorship deal (or sue the NRL) because they feel the negative impact from ongoing bias officiating is ultimately being associated with their brand?  

And as for the referee association’s pathetic threats of a defamation suit against Mr. Paris…? For the love of God, bring it. I’m no lawyer, but my understanding is they would have to prove he’s wrong.

Good luck with that.