An end to rugby's unethical code

Australian Secondary Schools Rugby LeageNews of the latest scandal among rugby league players has been received in some quarters as surprising. Some Catholic schools in Sydney are even contemplating ending an association that goes back decades. There are however, broader forces at play which no initiative by schools has sufficient power to affect.

In some respects, it would be a shame were this particular code of football to make itself too outrageous to be invited into schools. In the early post-war years, many students at schools run by orders of religious brothers were initiated into the game and some nostalgic attachment will linger. Baby-boomer blokes will have some memories — not always fond — of being thrown a football or two among a class of 60 and being told to enjoy themselves as they might.

At the working class school I attended, the teaching staff seemed to regret not being a few miles east along the main road at the prestigious 'college' where rugby union was played. Our buildings were crumbling, the methods of instruction barbaric and student creativity and initiative regarded with suspicion.

However, the school's football teams were extremely successful and in a period where sectarianism was still fairly common, successes in rugby league, along with swimming and cadet bands, were important for prestige and self-respect.

The school was near a major sporting ground, the home of a rugby league team, and stars of first grade, especially state and national representatives, appeared at presentation ceremonies and team training. These blokes did become role models of sorts, especially for boys who had none in other fields.

Of course the strong rugby league tradition was not all positive. Boys from migrant families would have made spectacular soccer players, but the sport was regarded as unmanly. And inevitably, anyone who was not good at the game or who participated unenthusiastically was not valued greatly.

Yet we were never scandalised by the behaviour of the stars and had a healthy degree of scepticism about footballers. Many had other occupations while others had sacrificed a career in order to work in day jobs provided by sponsors, supporters or even the registered clubs themselves.

Ironically, while these stars did not have unqualified adulation, they displayed far greater skills than are exhibited today. They tackled around the ankles, passed with style, slipped through gaps with silken ease, swerved and sidestepped past opponents, kicked accurately and gave credit to opponents where it was due. Most importantly they wore the colours of a club that was based in a district or even a single suburb.

The game today is played by boys who have no other qualifications. This is not necessarily their fault, as clubs demand total commitment. The clubs' intention may be to provide the best football by complete professionals, but the outcome is different. Today's players are dressed as salesmen for various companies, and they belong to the brands they serve

Individuals have been forced out and the culture of the game is flat and monotonous. These brand name billboards play like robots and the matches lack spectacle. Some observers have speculated that with the move to professional rugby union, rugby league will wither and be reabsorbed into rugby, from which it seceded.

No-one should be surprised to find antisocial behaviour in this culture. Because the game is sensitive to the demands of the sources of its revenue, stands on principle are foreign to the administration. Whether through incompetence or lack of resolve, rugby league as a code has not eliminated foul play. A body that tolerates assaults on the field can hardly be expected to be willing or able to control the players' off-field behaviour with alcohol, cars or women.

Spectators have the last say. Most who watch rugby league do so as part of a television audience. Many stopped watching long ago, realising the game was little more than a Trojan horse to introduce products through advertising. Unfortunately, the game has also been introducing distasteful ethics. Viewers need to stop inviting this mess into their lounge rooms.

Whatever noises the administrators make about reform, their main roles are to protect the product. When the code appoints sex discrimination experts and ethicists to make reforms, it is meant to keep the issues in house. They try to ensure that scandals do not erupt and when they do, these are made part of the spectacle.

Broader society should not expect the game to clean itself up. The league should long ago have adopted a hands-off policy and let people who make mistakes wear the consequences. It is high time that the rest of us stop allowing football administrators, advertisers and television stations to set the standards for ethical behaviour.

Regrettably, the record of recent years suggests the only way that the current unethical rugby league culture can be removed is for the code itself to disappear.

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.

Topic tags: tony smith, rugby league, rugby union, matthew johns, group sex, football scandal



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Existing comments

Well balanced, intelligent thinking.
The game has lost not only its credibility but its essence. The current spate of "boys" who lack maturity and ethics have ruined a great game.......get rid of the miscreants and endeavour to build the game again.
Judy | 19 May 2009

Your picture editor needs to make sure the correct football code photos are used. I am sure that you are not attempting to draw Rugby Union into the NRL debacle.
Brian Roberts | 19 May 2009

As a southerner I hesitate to comment on a code I don't really understand, but has Rugby League no redeeming elements? My friends from rugby playing states certainly seem to think so. It seems precipitate to throw the the whole code out when it doesn't perform to standards, especially in these days of recycling! It also misses an opportunity to demonstrate the possibility and power of redemption.

Jesus' example was to engage with the world even when that world seemed lost to sin. His engagement sought to move people from the place they were to another, to change lives, using the transforming power of grace.

To provide an example to generations who may not have heard these stories of Jesus, it would be worthwhile for people of goodwill and a positive and constructive outlook to engage Rugby league to change from it's bad boy image to that image sportsmanship aspires to.
Richard Wilson | 19 May 2009

Tony Smith is right, rugby league has had its day and it is time to promote healthier (in a moral, emotional, social, and spiritual sense) team sports. With easy access today to gyms and aerobic exercises such a running, walking and cylcing to keep fit, it seems more profitable, enjoyable and worthwhile (not to mention lifelong) that team activities such as tennis, bridge, debating, chess and so on should be promoted at school and community level.

John Edwards | 19 May 2009

I think sport is at its best when it is helping its players to become better human beings. Sport can do this. The commercialisation and professionalisation of some sports has undermined this. Tony has some good points here which highlight this process in Rugby League.

If the AFL induct Wayne Carey into their hall of fame, should the AFL also go the way of the dinosaur? Why is Ben Cousins still playing? Shane Warne has helped along the death of cricket with his mobile phone while the team downs a few VBs? If we are to accept Tony's argument about the NRL what is stopping the argument from spreading to other sports?

Are NRL players the only males to live out a lack of respect for women? I used to work at a place where the manager would refer to women as 'Vaginas' and where the name of the game was to sell as much of the product to unsuspecting customers as possible. Should we go and close this place down because of managment's deplorable attitude towards women and its focus on manipulative relationships with customers?

Andrew McAlister | 19 May 2009

Well let our children play Rugby not that the game that is played in Heaven???. or...keep the lid tightly shut on such vile off field activities as the Brisbane Broncos seem able to do???.
John M Costigan | 19 May 2009

I have been thinking for some time that the media exposure of sport has changed it enormously for myslef. We all know that 'games' are more professional. I am surprised to say that I don't watch Rugby League anymore and very little cricket. Super 14 finishes and the premier League and that's it, over and out.

It is hard to believe but my feeling of loyalty is gone, I thinik because there is no identification with a specific suburb or place.
Gary Walker | 19 May 2009

Tony sounds as if he still envies not making the 15As (8st -7lbs. A similar anaysis of most sports would lead to the same conclusions. The recent 'Heritage Round' of the NRL illustrated why the diehard faithful embrace RL as the greatest game of all.
Ken Rodwell | 19 May 2009

Try as we may to convince them otherwise, Victorians still can't get the code's name correct - as evidenced by the headline of this article.

Tony does make some valid points about the loss of 'community' in rugby league; the overarching thrust of commercialism into the code; the blandness and monotonous nature of the style of football often produced these days; and he touches on the possibility of rugby league's return to the sport from which it seceded - rugby union.

However, while I would support further reasoning for a hybrid 'rugby' code, the drift of Tony's article is to denigrate a sport followed a significant number of Australians based on little more than personal whims. C'mon, it needs to be a bit more robust than this doesn't it?
Tom Cranitch | 19 May 2009

Do you think Rugby and AFL are any different? Both sports have similar backgrounds with similar stories and both have admitted they have issues in their cupboards on sex scandals that they now fear!

Youth culture (binge drinking in particular) is a bigger threat to all society than a game played in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. Alcohol is the common factor in these issues ... kill league and you still have a big problem
S P Hogan | 19 May 2009

For those southerners who don't understand the comments about getting the name of the games right, here is an explanation:

The code began at Rugby School, and became known as Rugby Football, organised as the Rugby Football Union. A breakaway group of players who wanted the game to attract more spectators changed the rules and formed the (professional) Rugby Football League. Amateurs went on playing under the old rules. Both codes are played in Sydney. The amateur (but increasingly professional) code is called Rugby. The very professional code is called League. When they say "football" they mean "League".
Michael Grounds | 19 May 2009

Well said indeed! Sadly this obscene behaviour is not confined to rugby league and to make matters even worse the powers that be in the AFL now seem to be campaigning for Good Friday games. There was a time when we played games to enjoy healthy fun and exercise; today the driving force is to make money.
David | 19 May 2009

To be fair to the editors, I think the headline might be a pun intended to distinguish between the two rugby codes - i.e. rugby league is the 'unethical [rugby] code'.
Charles Boy | 19 May 2009

Let's see now, the NRL has record attendances and record TV ratings, it shows no sign of being absorbed by Rugby Union and any unbiased assesement of the actual game as played would indicate that on-field vioence has been greatly reduced in recent years.

To attribute behaviour problems to the nature of the game itself is silly (why not ban Ice Hockey or Hurling); so is it because it is played by young working class men with lots of money and time? Well, the game is addressing those issues through education and counselling, but it will take time as it is a generational change.

Criticisms of the game because it is full-time professional hold no water - RU/AFL etc are in the same boat.
But the Jesuit schools have never liked league. They embraced the GPS/CAS sports so that their boys would mix with the other upper class schools and not have to sully themselves with the pursuits of the Marist and Patrician brothers lads (note for the more sensitive Jesuit reader: this is a joke)

But Tony, ask the boys at Alos what sport they support and watch - shock horror it is NRL!
chris gow | 19 May 2009

Grand to have this discussion. I'm a southerner too but if one was to do such a 'review' perhaps a sport that is less physically damaging. I read Paul Freeman's biography of Ian Roberts some years ago and the physical degradation of the body in that sport is quite marked also. Cheers.
Ben Quinn | 19 May 2009

Your author's first mistake is to assume that Rugby league begins and ends at the NRL; the game is too widely played by too diverse a range of people for all its players and admirers to be defamed based on the actions of a few. Should a player in the PNG highlands who earns the equivalent of 25 dollars a week, or the Cumbrian ship-builder who plays on the weekends be held responsible for the actions of a handful of Australian players?

Similarly, to label a code as a "Trojan horse" of commerce is simply laughable when you consider that many thousands of teenage Papua New Guineans play barefoot on rocky pitches in midsummer with no commercial associations whatsoever.

The game of Rugby league is no more inherently "unethical" than any other, stories of scandal in other codes is more than enough evidence to show that "unethical" behaviour is something people engage in, no matter what sports they choose to watch and play.

Finally, your author's comments on the game itself are just opinions masquerading as fact - clearly millions of people disagree with him.
Peter | 20 May 2009

Rugby League has always been a tough sport to play, but it is a real mans game and as such will appeal to many very fine young men.

Disrespect for women is not confined to the NRL you will find it right through our society. It is very upseting but the NRL is certainly doing something about it, and taking very firm action against offenders. Many NRL clubs are also doing a lot of work with under privileged children. NRL also provides the opportunity for many people to have a career in sport. Again something that is very worthwhile.

The culture of how women are treated is a very broad canvass and deserves more profound consideration than this article. Is there more to do yes there is but much has been achieved in cleanig up the game both on and off the field. As a very long term follower of Rugby League, my comments on the writer's thoughts on how the game used to be played, are that he must have been wearing rose coloured glasses at the time.
ron hill | 20 May 2009

I will long remember with glee my days at Hull University, when I was ostracised for my obedience to my faith and as result played that great game and happily made many lifelong friendships that have lasted the years.

Tony you should get off your high horse and admit that you favor the amateur code, which if the truth be known has as many bad eggs as those you now rail against.
Areyth Schoibler | 21 May 2009

Drinking tea or draught beer represent Australian cultural practices. No one who has just taken his or her first mouthful of black billy tea or cold draught beer could say that either was delicious. Such tastes are both imposed and subsequently acquired. Whether they are the Irishman's Road Game, the Frencman's Boule or the Eastern Australian's Rugby League, they are cultural inventions first imposed, then absorbed and finally loved with with a great passion. You can take the man out of Rugby League but you can't take Rugby League out of the man, and neither should you!
Claude Rigney | 21 May 2009

I appreciated Tony Smith's article. Why is it that the church which has so much to say on all sorts of ethical issues, is surprisingly not able to publicly comment on an issues of power and domination over women that seems to be of some concern in this case even if there was consent by the woman most people think that the odds of I think 11 men against one woman leaves the woman vulnerable to the power and control of these men. Perhaps the public face of the church feels very inept to challenge the culture of rugby league because issues of power and domination of women lie at the heart of its injustices. Who in the church has the courage to tackle such contemporary cultural concerns and look at some of the most disruptive problems in the community. Power and abuse against women in our communities. The silence from the catholic church is deafening at the public level when it comes to is issue.
Ros | 21 May 2009

Well said Ros and pertinent to the discussion.

I am surprised at the level of support for any sport which denigrates women in the ways which have been publicized lately ... perhaps some clubs keep the lid on it ... does that condone the behavior??
Judy | 22 May 2009

Well thought through response to a tatty situation, Tony.

I remember the good old days in my childhood and adolescence, before the R.L. became commercially professional - I enjoyed competition and 'amateur professionalism' of the teams immensely. Once the clubs lost their local identity and became beholden to the almighty dollar, I lost interest. I still follow the fortunes of the "Canberra Raiders", but without the intensity of the early days of the 1980s.

It seems when Big Money or TV Interests get into the mix, they simply destroy what they take over. Rather than destroy R.L., played by many other non professional players around the world, lets get rid of the greedy and grotty individuals and corporations who have destroyed a noble game. I hope and pray that Union does not go down the same path, the old timers of the famous Rugby School (which I visited) would spin in their graves!!! Looks what the late Kerry Packer's mob did to Cricket!!
Gavin | 22 May 2009

I'm with Tony Judy and Ros. The macho comments from the rest of the boys leave me unimpressed. I suspect they would all be opposed to allowing Sharia Law to operate in Australian Muslim communities, but they have no objection to cases of on-field violence being dealt with by so called 'tribunals'. The sooner such on-field violence is seen for what it is and dealt with as common assault in criminal courts rather than as 'striking' and 'gouging' in in-house tribunals, the better for all of us.

The quickest way to clean up any sport is for the sponsors on which it relies to withdraw their support.
Tom Jones | 22 May 2009

Reading down trough these comments, I can almost smell the testosterone and hear the contributors' shoulders jostling! Who cares what kind of ball game we mean ... who cares whether we are an old Hunters'Hill boy or St Pat's, Blacktown ... You all talk about footballers' treatment of women as though women are just another substance that can be abused, like alcohol, fast cars or performance-inducing drugs. While you're all puffing yourselves up, proclaiming this or that opinion, can't you think for even a second about a young woman, not proud or puffed-up at all, but feeling like such absolute filth that she would prefer to be dead? That is the real centre of this discussion. Not all this chest-beating and good ol' boy intellectualising.
Philomena | 23 May 2009

As a TV viewer I believe Rugby League is a far better spectacle than Rugby Union. I cannot see the game dying or being absorbed in to Union which is an untidy game sometimes difficult to follow. With regard to the behavior of young Rugby League stars the solution to their behaviour problems lies in the facts that they have too much money and too much time on their hands. All young Rugby League players should have part of their fees deducted and paid in to a superannuation fund. These young men should also be required to be studying, doing apprenticeships or otherwise acquiring skills useful when their playing careers are over
Phil Smith | 20 June 2009


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