Let’s cut the NRL some slack

This article was written by Natalie Akle. 

Yet again the media has persecuted an elite list of players during this year’s rugby league season, maintaining the stereotypical stigma of Australian NRL players.

As the news tabloids shift their attention to the next drama, we are all left wondering how will Greg Inglis bounce back after his alleged drink-driving charges? Will Sam Burgess be forgiven for his alleged sexting incident? Will the Bulldogs lose another sponsor after the Mad Monday coverage?

But more importantly we should ask, do these men really deserve to be put on trial by the media?

While media attention, both positive and negative, is inevitable when pursuing a career in the public eye, the predetermined perception of NRL players maintained by Australia has offered little opportunity for rugby league to redeem its reputation.

Cultural advisor for the NRL, Catharine Lumby, puts it perfectly, “here is a class-based prejudice which says, this kind of man can’t be trusted with women, they are going to be permanently drunk, they are those kinds of guys.”

I do not condone the wrongdoings of NRL players, nor do I think they should be excused without consequences, however stereotyping a whole institution based on a few incidents falls short of resolving the larger issue at hand.

NRL players are not unalike from the overall picture of Australian social ethics, in fact they only represent that we still have a lot more educating to do.

For example, Greg Inglis was recently stripped of his Kangaroos captaincy after alleged drink-driving charges. If that wasn’t enough of a shameful ordeal for Inglis, he was also publicly discredited by countless news articles.

While Inglis’s alleged actions are inexcusable, this is a harsh punishment compared to the average consequences suffered by other drink-driving offenders on Australian roads.

According to the Transport Action Commission, 1 in 5 road fatalities in 2017 were instigated by drink-driving, so why is Inglis the only supposed drink-driver who has been explicitly demonised by society for his wrongdoings?

In reality, incidents within the NRL only represent a minority of players and do not reflect the overall demographic of the rugby league community, in fact when looking at drinking statistics NRL players aren’t exactly the drunken degenerates the media portrays them to be.

“I’ve seen no evidence that NRL players, as a whole, are worse than average men in their cohort,” said Lumby.

“If you look at alcohol consumption you’ll find that they consume a lot less alcohol than many men in their age group.”

So why are we so outraged by the behaviour of a select few NRL players, if a large portion of Australians engage in the same practices?

Recent studies show that more than 5 million Australians drink alcohol to get drunk. That’s over 20% of the total population.

You only have to go to your local pub on a Friday night to know that drunken behaviour in Australian culture is not exactly exemplary conduct.

The only difference between NRL players and the average working-class man is that when it comes to a big night out a typical bloke doesn’t face the threat of a telephoto lens capturing images of their drunken state, like the Bulldogs did.

As Lumby said, “there’s probably a lot of young men in other professions going out on a Saturday night and behaving badly but the reality is if you’re an elite athlete, you will be held to a higher standard than most people.”

I agree with this notion to an extent, NRL players are supposed to be role models to young Australians and getting rowdy in public isn’t exactly a good look for the cameras. However, we forget that beyond their elite athletic abilities, rugby league players are just commonplace Aussie men.

While there is no excuse for anyone to break the law, is it fair we use a select few as scapegoats to represent the flaws in the social ethics of Australia?

The problem here isn’t the fact that Inglis got behind the wheel in an inebriated state or that the Bulldogs drank a little too much and stripped off in an end of season celebration. The problem is that cultural change cannot happen overnight.

According to Lumby, the NRL is heading in the right direction to ensure the off-field behaviour of players and staff is improved.

However, the media’s constant negative outlook on rugby league’s social standards is hindering the opportunity for the sport to allow time for cultural advancement.

“It’s a shame that you get a lot of media reporting that runs parallel to the process of investigation and in many ways that isn’t fair to the individuals concerned,” said Lumby.

“The thing is long term cultural change takes time and I do see the positive things that are happening behind the scenes.”

“I don’t see evidence that NRL players are completely out of step but what I do think is when they do the wrong thing they are very high profile so everyone hears about it.”

Publicly shaming a few individuals for their wrongdoings will not fix the larger issue at hand.

So before exerting all our energy into pointing fingers at players for their supposed social crimes, look at the bigger picture.

We should be working towards correcting the deep-rooted issues of Australia’s social behaviour instead of bullying those who represent this need for change.