This article was first written and published by The Roar.
Jack de Belin is not bigger than the game of rugby league.
But this week, De Belin found himself in court again, challenging the validity of the NRL’s new ‘no-fault, stand down policy’ and fighting for his immediate playing future.
This case is an important one because it goes directly toward answering how the NRL can protect the game’s reputation and continue to attract sponsors in the wake of off-field incidents, while still respecting an individual’s legal right to the presumption of innocence.
Much of the evidence has been of this nature, with the NRL and others, like Melbourne Storm chairperson Bart Campbell, trying to demonstrate the financial impact that De Belin’s behaviour has had on the game, as well as on the mindset of fans and potential new fans.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have found it challenging to watch the narrative around De Belin change. Given he was immediately stood down and unable to play, some have chosen to portray him as a victim of an archaic NRL policy. Given the seriousness of the charges leveled against him (to which he has plead not guilty), at present, I feel very little sympathy for him.
But what I feel now is anger and disgust.
On Thursday, De Belin’s lawyers made their closing statements. As part of those statements, his lawyers claimed the NRL did not put their client through an education program about violence against women (despite putting him through training on other things like gambling, drugs and on how to speak to the media).
The lawyers potentially chose this line of argument to demonstrate that the NRL cannot introduce a policy and then not give requisite training to the players so they can adhere to the policy.
These comments were deeply insulting and offensive for so many reasons.
Firstly, I find it very hard to believe that they are true. What I do know is true is that there is almost no sport in Australia that does more in the education space for its players, particularly around violence towards women than the NRL.
The league has very close relationships with Our Watch and the Full Stop Foundation and representatives from these organisations have told me that most NRL players are given more education than the average Australian.
This work doesn’t just begin from when players make their NRL debut. Go speak to Alan Tongue about his ‘Voice Against Violence’ program and the thousands of teenagers he works with every year to teach them about the importance of respectful relationships. Or Professor Catharine Lumby, who has worked with the NRL as a consultant for many years in this very space.
These comments are deeply disrespectful to the many people that work at the NRL and at our clubs in this space. These men and women spend their days focused solely on the players’ education, health and welfare.
But forget how offensive these comments are to the many people working in this space in the game and consider this.
I find it very disturbing that De Belin’s lawyers would try and spin a narrative whereby employers are responsible for giving their employees training about how violence against women is wrong.
How much further do workplaces need to go? What sort of message does this send to women who love the game?
It has been another exceptionally difficult week for women in Australia.
On Thursday, Borce Ristevski was sentenced to nine years in jail for killing his wife Karen at their family home before proceeding to dump her body in the bush. He denied any involvement with the murder basically up until the trial started. Given he has already served 491 days in prison, he will be eligible for parole in less than five years.
Is this the price of a woman’s life in Australia?
Is this how far we have sunk?
Do players need to be educated on how wrong that sort of behaviour is as well?
Justice Melissa Perry has made it clear that it is unlikely that she will hand down a judgement in the case until next week. This means that it is unlikely De Belin will be in a position where he will be selected for the Anzac Day game against the Sydney Roosters.
But again, this is about more than one player.
This case is bigger than the player. It is about our game and what we want it to stand for. It is about making it exceptionally clear that violence against women will not be tolerated and that there are certain standards of behaviour that our players need to adhere to.
If our players are unclear on what those standards are and what it means to be a decent, kind and compassionate member of society, then might I suggest they go back to school. Because that’s where you learn lessons about respect, tolerance and that violence is never, ever the answer.
I desperately want our game to be the best it can be, but comments like those made by De Belin’s lawyers do nothing but create collateral damage.