This article was first written for and published by The Guardian.
Last week the NRL launched the 2019 season in Sydney with 16 club captains, a box-full of fireworks and one slogan: “A New Era”. Given the horrific off-season the league has just endured, it’s not hard to see why those three words are being pushed as the new campaign’s tag line.
There can be no sugarcoating it; the game has lurched from one disaster to another since the curtain fell on last season, as a string of serious allegations have been levelled against players including assault, rape and the filming and dissemination of intimate content.
Concerningly some, including the broadcaster Phil Gould, have stated that when it comes to some of this behaviour, specifically the sex tapes, it is prevalent across the game – and it is more widespread than initially thought.
For many fans, watching this circus has been exceptionally difficult. Some have been so disheartened that they have decided to take some time away from the game.
Those who are not invested in the same way as rusted-on fans judge the game via these headlines and these incidents. They don’t know about the strong partnerships the NRL has formed with OurWatch and the Full Stop Foundation. They probably aren’t aware that in relation to respectful relationships NRL players receive more training than any other code. They may have some idea about the constant and ongoing work NRL players do in the community, but probably not how much.
This is problematic. Because whilst die-hard fans are desperate for the start of the season so they can finally turn their attention from scandals to actual footy, if rugby league is to continue to grow and prosper, it needs to reach new markets and attract new audiences. But it’s hard to do that when the game’s reputation has sunk so low.
In 2017, during the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement between the game and its players, the Rugby League Players Association and the players insisted on a larger revenue share and spoke about their desire to be true partners in the game.
Yet if they truly want to be partners of the sport, there must be an understanding of how influential their behaviour can be on the attitudes of those who – and those who are wanted to – support the game.
These behaviours, which have in common an underlying layer of disrespect towards women, are not just a rugby league problem. Sport can often be a reflection of society and in Australia so far this year, 11 women have already been killed as a result of domestic and sexual violence. We are only in March.
Sport can also have the capacity to bring people together in a way that almost nothing else can, which is why the NRL’s role is so important in this space. The NRL accepted this when Todd Greenberg and Peter Beattie announced the Australian Rugby League Commission will stand down players facing serious indictable offences on full pay while they are before the courts without any presumption of guilt.
This policy is being challenged, but it has seen Jack de Belin, Dylan Walkerand Tyrone May stood down. Scott Bolton has been suspended for five games and fined, while Dylan Napa has also been hit in the pocket. The new policy allows the league to send a strong message – within the presumption of innocence the court system applies – that violence towards women will not be tolerated and there are expected standards of behaviour.
For rugby league, it is imperative the strong voice with which Beattie and Greenberg have spoken over the last week is indeed the beginning of a new era. A new era where players clearly understand the consequences of their actions. But most importantly, a new era where the NRL can emerge as leaders in an important conversation that needs to take place in Australian society about respectful relationships and consent.
As we head into a new season this week, all eyes are on the players and whether they can prove to be the ambassadors their clubs and communities expect them to be. It is key they do so if the NRL is to salvage its reputation.
The alternative? More fans turning their back on the game they love and the stymying of growth. It really is make or break time for the NRL.