NRL: A pre-season scandal epidemic

Parramatta Eels star Jarryd Hayne, left, at training in 2018. (Photo: Jarryd Hayne, Facebook)

Few deny the NRL has a “woman problem”. The question is what is being done about it. Hatch’s Morgan Dyer reports.

Australians have become increasingly aware of the nation’s domestic violence epidemic. It’s a commonly cited statistic that on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. And recently, few areas of society have fallen under the glare of the violence-against-women spotlight than the NRL, whose players are the focus of a seemingly never-ending stream of scandals.

During the NRL’s 2018/19 preseason,, five high-profile players were charged with sexual assault, including first grade St George player Jack De Belin and Parramatta Eels allrounder Jarryd Hayne. De Belin and Hayne have pleaded not guilty and have been given special bail conditions because of their career commitments. De Belin has been stood down.

As recently as last week, the media was filled with reports of sex tapes involving NRL players being leaked to social media.

There is no question these incidents have placed a shadow over the NRL’s reputation, though the NRL has denied White Ribbon Australia’s suggestion that there is “an unhealthy culture embedded in NRL clubs”.

Early in the pre-season, West Tigers premiership player Robbie Farrah expressed his disappointment at NRL players failure to take ownership of their  actions.

Farrah told Channel 9 he was embarrassed to tell people he played NRL because of the current stigma surrounding the sport.

“It’s getting to a point now where we’re not learning our lesson. These things seem to come up every year,” said Farrah.

But Paul Heptonstall, the senior manager of player wellness and education for the NRL, said that while the offseason incidents were disappointing, there would always be incidents because the NRL was made up of people from the community.

As such, it was a snapshot of Australian society, he said.

“If you look at the number of related [integrity] issues over the last few years you can see it’s declining significantly,” Heptonstall said. “The unfortunate reality is that you don’t hear of the really good stuff the NRL does.”

Attendance at NRL games grew by 5.5 per cent in 2018 but the code averaged just 16,620 spectators compared with its rivals, the AFL, which has more than doubled its crowds to an average 36,000 people per game. The two Sydney AFL clubs are filling more seats than the once dominant Sydney NRL teams. Last year, the Sydney Swans drew an average crowd of 34,000 people and the Greater Western Sydney Giants averaged crowds of 23,000.

The NRL prides itself on its “voice against violence campaign”. The program partners with Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, Our Watch and White Ribbon Australia.

Heptonstall said the sport invested heavily in educating its players about sexual abuse and similar issues. The NRL also had programs for each player to ensure the individual’s health, wellbeing and personal character were properly managed, he said.

On Friday, the NRL announced its new “no fault stand down”, policy which allows the NRL to indefinitely stand down it’s players who are facing up to or more than 11 years jail time.  De Belin was the first player to be stood down as he awaits the outcome of his rape charges when he appears in court on April 17. Players who are delisted remain on their full salary and have the option to train with their club.

The policy comes as the NRL faces relentless public scrutiny over player behaviour.

The league’s gender advisor, Catharine Lumby, told The Guardian that in her view if “someone is convicted of [domestic violence or sexual assault], they should never be allowed to play again”.

Canterbury Bulldogs recruit Hayden Ashcroft said he became frustrated when people viewed NRL players as “overpaid, disrespectful thugs”. He believed the actions of a minority should not affect people’s views of the sport in general.

“The NRL gives us a lot of education, I think it really comes down to the players personal morals,” said Ashcroft, who left school at 16 to play the game.

“As a boy growing up in the country, I’ve noticed how different things are in the city. It’s the education I’ve been given from NRL that I know how to act in situations, but I know a few of the boys I play with don’t take things or accept new social norms.”

In Ashcroft’s experience, the NRL provided adequate education and support.

“Every preseason, the clubs put training on Sunday mornings so that we are focused and committed to the sport,” he said.

The pre-season drama was fuelled last week when three lewd videos circulated on social media involving multiple Penrith Panthers players. Panthers utility Tyrone May was arrested by police for disseminating two alleged sex tapes. May has been given bail.