This article was first written for and published by the Roar.
Is there anything more rugby league than two Canterbury Bulldogs players being stood down two nights before the rugby league season kicks off because of an off-field controversy?
On Tuesday afternoon it was revealed that Corey Harawira-Naera and Jayden Okunbor would both be stood down from the Bulldogs squad following an allegation of consensual sex with high school girls following the club’s trip to Port Macquarie.
Both players will be unable to attend Bulldogs training until an investigation is complete.
It’s really important to state up front that neither player is facing any criminal charges. From what we know at this stage, both girls were above the legal age of consent, which is 16 years old in New South Wales for women.
There has not been a police complaint and there is no allegation that what occurred was non-consensual.
So, because of that, some are asking, what’s the big deal?
In terms of NRL atrocities, I have certainly seen far worse.
However, what is icky about these events is that Okunbor is said to have met one of the girls at a school visit in Port Macquarie. Nothing happened at the school itself, but there was a flirty social media exchange over Instagram between the girl and Okunbor where the meet-up was organised.
School outreach is something the players are encouraged to do in order to grow the game by encouraging girls and boys to not just play the game, but get involved in it.
Will schools now think twice about welcoming NRL clubs to their grounds?
Additionally, these behaviours all have an impact on the bottom line.
The Bulldogs’ performances on the field over the last couple of years have been disappointing. Salary cap drama has meant their ability to compete in the open market has been compromised and given the injury to Kieran Foran, the team also faces challenges this year.
You would be hard-pressed to find any rugby league fan with the Bulldogs in their top eight.
So without on-field success, the Dogs need their off-field brand to be strong to continue to encourage fans to come out to games and additionally to attract sponsors.
Heading into this season, Canterbury did not have a major sponsor. While there was an announcement about a restaurant chain coming into the fold, this recent scandal may impact this decision and for good reason.
Sponsorship is a relationship between two organisations. It’s important in most cases for values to align and for the organisation investing the money, to see some sort of return. In many cases, that return is commercial.
Let’s think about it. If you were the CEO of a major company or someone who had the ability to make decisions in relation to sponsorship, if you had $2 million in sponsorship spend and an incident like this happened, would you stick around?
Or in an exceptionally crowded and saturated Sydney sporting market, would you take your money elsewhere?
Additionally, given global economic fears, these dollars are harder than ever before for clubs to come by. Imagine landing a sponsor and then losing them because of player behaviour.
This is an impact that players need to understand. In the last collective bargaining agreement, the Rugby League Players Association made it clear that the players wanted to be part of the game and share in its earnings. Do they also want to contribute when their actions result in a loss in earnings?
I commend the Bulldogs on their swift action in relation to this matter. As I mentioned, neither player is under criminal investigation, but both have been stood down because they breached team protocol, which does not allow players to bring women back to team hotels.
Over the last year, Lynne Anderson and Andrew Hill have worked hard on team culture and the meaning of the Bulldogs brand. You saw that brand on the field last year, when despite having one of the worst squads in the NRL, the side turned up each week, tried hard for each other, beat some top-eight contenders, and even had a mini-run towards the finals towards the end of the season.
Behaviour like this does not seem to align with this culture and no doubt events of the last week will have an impact on the squad as they head into their Round 1 clash against the Parramatta Eels at Bankwest Stadium.
I hope the remainder of the clubs take this opportunity to speak to their players about the very real role they have as ambassadors of their club.
Players might not think that their actions matter, but they absolutely do.
And in a competitive market, where brand is increasingly relevant and organisations are looking for the best bang for their buck, one mistake can prove extremely costly.