The NRL and our committed voice against violence

Thugs.  Bullies.  Neanderthals.  Over the course of my time as a rugby league fan, these are words that I have heard used commonly to describe the men that play the game of rugby league.  These are words I want removed from the rugby league vernacular.

These words are part of what I think is a widespread community view that rugby league players have a particular problem when it comes to attitudes and behaviours towards women.

This view is largely the result of a number of incidents which occurred in the early 2000’s.  What is important to remember though is that these incidents did not occur because the men were football players, it occurred because these were men who failed to behave responsibly and ethically in certain situations.

It was at this point that rugby league took a stand and decided that this needed to change and what we have seen since then is rugby league’s attempt to change this culture, which not only existed in rugby league but in our society.  And in my view, it’s working and as fans, we have fans to share this story so we can do everything we can to change this outdated view of our game.

I do not pretend that our sport is perfect, but the reality is, nothing is.

The NRL is a microcosm of society.  Our sport reflects broader society and the people in it.  So long as Australia continues to have a problem with respectful relationships, sexism, domestic violence and gender inequality this will continue to be reflected in our game.  The NRL is not the only sector of society that faces these problems.  These problems impact all the major sports and all sectors of our society.  These are issues which do not discriminate – they impact all demographics, cultures and people.

In particular, when we consider women, whilst we have come a long way, women remain underrepresented in almost every facet of public life – in the political arena, on boards and as executives of our largest and most significant companies.  The statistics in relation to domestic and family violence are staggering, with more than one woman killed each week in 2015 as a result of such behaviour.  On average women will end their careers with less superannuation than their male counterparts and a gender pay gap still exists.

While we can focus on the ‘perceived problem’ that the NRL has in regard to attitudes towards women, I don’t think this is useful or accurate.  What is far more powerful is to work on the solution and highlight how the NRL is using its very powerful voice to drive and influence change in our communities.

Voice Against Violence

Last month, I caught up with former Canberra Raider and current NRL Community Ambassador Alan Tongue to talk about the NRL’s Voice Against Violence Program.

Here is what I learnt.

The Voice Against Violence program is an NRL awareness program around domestic violence and in particular, violence against women and children.

Australia is finally beginning to start having conversations about domestic violence and its realities.  The Voice Against Violence campaign gives rugby league the opportunity to continue this conversation from the grassroots up and use the profile of our game to share very important social messages.

Specially designed with partners such as Our Watch, White Ribbon and the Full Stop Foundation, the program centres around educating our players – from the senior players right down to our 16 and 18 year old players.  This is particularly important because it is usually between the ages of 16 and 18 that people enter into their first serious relationship.

With ambassadors from all across the rugby league community including Corey Parker (Australian Kangaroos), Ruan Sims (Australian Jillaroos), Sarina Fiso (Kiwi Ferns), James Maloney (Country), Wade Graham (City), Peni Terepo (Tonga), Stanton Albert (Papua New Guinea) and Eloni Vunakece (Fiji), it is clear that the NRL is committed to ensuring that this program touches all parts of the rugby league family and is consistent with statistics about domestic violence which tells us that it is not an issue which only impacts one culture or demographic.

Instead of pointing fingers and shifting blame, this program focuses on the idea that domestic violence is a problem which impacts the whole of our society and that our players can be part of the solution and leaders in their communities.

But talking in a classroom is often not enough.  This is still a topic which is tough to tackle, which is why Alan has specifically designed a program for the field.

Alan has designed a number of drills and exercises on the field to begin the conversation around domestic violence.  These are activities that Alan used during his rugby league career which have been tweaked and modified for a different type of conversation.

For example, drills around communication, where players are first encouraged to do a drill without communicating.  Unsurprisingly, in all circumstances the drill fails.  After communication is encouraged, the drill is much easier to complete and far more successful.  This then gives Alan the opportunity to talk to the players about communication and just like on the field if communication fails about an issue like domestic violence, we will keep making mistakes and our country will keep making mistakes.  In this example, rugby league is being used as a vehicle to start a very important conversation.

What is interesting about this program is that all the evidence suggests that on-field programs do not work because the messages are fleeting and quickly forgotten.  But Alan’s program presents similar messages in a different way.  Whilst the program is a one-off, the drills are drills which are used in every training session and which will remind the players of the messaging that was shared with them during the program every time they train.  Eventually this message becomes ingrained and attitudes begin to change.

During Women in League round there was plenty of discussion about women being made to feel welcome and included in all aspects of the rugby league family.  This is important.  But what the Voice Against Violence program demonstrates to me that whilst we are committed to inclusion as a game, the game is also serious that the players in our game understand how to behave ethically and responsibly in their relationships off the field as well.

The Full Stop Foundation

The NRL also has a very strong relationship with the Full Stop Foundation which is the fundraising arm of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia.  This organisation provides counselling for people who experience violence, but also looks at resources and funds to run programs that will stop the violence.

Through the NSW government’s Office for Women, the Full Stop Foundation has been given the opportunity to work with the NRL through a grant to roll out a program called ‘Sex and Ethics’ which is a program about the prevention of sexual assault for young people.

This is a 6 week program that 6 NRL clubs have put their hands up to participate in.  5 clubs have finished the program and one more is about to commence.  Surveys are done before the program starts and 3 months post the program because it is all about making sure that there is a change in attitude that sticks.

Similar to the message Alan promotes, Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, Karen Willis OAM also believes that it is important not to tell people that sex is bad or that they shouldn’t do it.  Instead, the focus of the program is on decision making so that people who want to engage in sexual behaviour (for whatever reason) have the ability to navigate those decisions and make them ethically.

One of Karen’s favourite moments of the program so far has been a young player who wrote a response to the ethical framework and a question on how the ethical framework could be used to make a good decision.  The player wrote ‘am I in a state to make a good decision?  Is my partner in a state to make a good decision?  Are we both on the same page?  If the answers to these questions are yes, then ‘play on’.’

Whilst it is on the NRL’s shoulders to educate our players, to have strong messaging and to take a strong and consistent stance against domestic violence, our game is too small to do this on our own.  We need concerted action from Australian leaders and the Australian people.  We need to work together.  We all need to take responsibility for what is going on and educate our young men from a young age that any sort of intimidating behaviour to women is wrong – there is no excuse, there is no time when it is ok and it is never an accident.

According to Karen, if you stick 500 men in a room you will overwhelmingly get men who are ethical in their relationships towards women, a small group who will habitually use violence and some that will go either way depending their state of mind but that overwhelmingly, Karen would expect a higher proportion in a group of 500 rugby league players to behave ethically because of the training that has taken place.

The NRL is truly a leader in this space.  Absolutely.  But that does not lessen our responsibility to keep trying and do everything we can.

What the NRL has realised is that the men that play rugby league mean so much to the people that support them.  These men are often not only leaders at their clubs, but are also leaders in their communities.  With this power comes tremendous responsibility and ability to initiate and drive change.  Let’s not shy away from this and continue to take a proactive stance towards the issue.

If we can encourage and change the behaviour of one player and this player behaves ethically in his relationships with others – this leads to a ripple effect where we can change behaviours one person at a time.  This is extremely powerful and I encourage the NRL to continue to be part of the solution and educate our players to be outstanding both on and off the field.

Most of all, I encourage you to share this story and be encouraged to be part of a game that not only takes what happens on the field seriously, but off it too.


Ladies who League xxx

P.S. Below are some pictures taken at the City 2 Surf last weekend where myself and representatives from the NRL walked with the Full Stop Foundation to put a full stop to domestic and sexual violence.  Keep an eye out for Head of Community at the NRL, Ellen Beale, Ben Ross and Dan Hunt.