Concerns about the behaviour of NRL players is reaching critical mass, with passionate and frustrated club powerbrokers demanding action, clarity and leadership as the game's reputation takes an unprecedented hammering.
"The reality is there has been such a welter in such a short time that there is a serious question about our sport and what it stands for – and if it stands for anything," Gold Coast chairman Dennis Watt said. "We have to take action or there will be no game left to manage."
Charges: Jack de Belin appeared in court this week following an alleged sexual assault in Wollongong.Credit:Adam McLean
The Sun-Herald reached out to clubs to ask their stance on matters of serious misconduct and how the ongoing reputational damage to the code was impacting relationships with sponsors, members and supporters.
Those that responded made it clear they respected the legal presumption of innocence around matters such as the Jack De Belin sexual assault proceedings, but the deluge of incidents, including the pre-season sacking of Ben Barba by North Queensland for an alleged assault on his partner in public, has done real and potentially lasting damage.
Under the NRL’s current policy, players who made a not-guilty plea are entitled to continue training and playing alongside a presumption of innocence. Within the space of a week, there has been a rapid and pronounced movement in favour of standing down players, on full pay, that are dealing with serious criminal charges.
In the eye of the storm: Jarryd Hayne, Zane Musgrove, Dylan Walker and Jack de Belin.Credit:AAP
Watt said the Titans had resolved as a club to support a change that would see players stood down until a resolution had been reached.
"We are being perceived as a game that is tolerant of abuse of women," he said. "As a club, we support the standing down of players if they are facing serious criminal charges, until the resolution of those charges. That’s not to pre-judge their guilt or innocence, we just think that in most professions you cannot stay in your role while you are being investigated or prosecuted for serious criminal offences.
"This is a legal minefield. But the reality is it would be built into a player’s contract, it would be built into the rules of the game. If you want to take part in this game, that’s simply a price that you pay."
Watt said the moment had arrived for the NRL to take an ethical and moral stand regarding the seemingly never-ending conveyer belt of serious off-field incidents.
Wests Tigers chair Marina Go believes it is time to make a firm statement about player behaviour and set a new standard.
"When the allegation is so serious and clearly there is cause for police interaction on a regular basis, I don’t think it is something you can ignore or wait for," Go said. "My personal feeling – and I’m not speaking on behalf of my board – in that situation a player should be stood down.
"I’m not suggesting payment should be taken away, but I do believe there should be a statement about the player standing down."
Go said the inconsistency in punishments should see matters taken out of the hands of clubs and handed over to the governing body.
"We should have set rules around what should happen in a case like this," she said. "I don’t think there should be flexibility around a really extreme case.
"In many ways, this feels like the line in the sand. There have been many lines in the sand before, but this feels different because everyone in the community, not just people in rugby league, have an opinion.
"It’s not about saying it, it’s doing it. Otherwise no one will take us seriously … not the players, sponsors or fans. Then we don’t have a game. This isn’t about making an example of someone, this is about the right thing to do. It’s time for us to do what’s right."
NRL boss Todd Greenberg said the current policy would be up for debate when the Australian Rugby League Commission met on February 28.
"Under our current policy we’ve made it very clear that these are matters for the courts and the NRL is very strong on applying natural justice to its players," Greenberg said in Melbourne on Friday.
"In saying that, though, that’s our current policy. We’ve made it clear we need to consider that very carefully. Each case needs to be judged on its merits. On this occasion [the de Belin matter] with the information in the public atmosphere, it is very difficult and I understand why people are debating that. But the principles of our policy stand very clear at the moment that when a player is before the courts, we will stand back and allow that process to take place."
Dragons chief executive Brian Johnston said issues around player behaviour were never black and white, and any move by the club could taint the legal process.
"Aside from various contractual and welfare obligations, advice suggests that any action taken by the club may have significant ramifications and may interfere with the fairness of the judicial process," Johnston said.
Newcastle chief executive Philip Gardner said his club would tear up the contracts of any player found guilty of perpetrating violence against women, but said there must be caution not to make emotional decisions based on "feverish opinion".
"We have to be particularly careful that we don’t allow our players to face trial by media, to be found guilty and executed – and then to be found innocent in court," he said. "The issue in Australia is justice is not swift. Because we can’t get quick decisions around these sorts of issues, it drags out and the price paid by individuals and society in these things is enormous."
Gardner urged the NRL to have firmer and clearer guidelines around punishments and for them to take the lead, not leave it in the hands of clubs.
"I’ve already spoken to Todd [Greenberg, NRL boss] about it," he said. "We need to have minimum standards. In the AFL they have a drunken public fine as a minimum [if reported]. We should be setting these standards."
Parramatta director Sean McElduff said his view, although not necesarily that of the board, was that poor behaviour was fast reaching a tipping point and it was starting to cripple clubs.
"It’s just not good for the game," he said. "It’s not good for the fans, sponsors and not good for business generally. The corporates as well as the fans are fed up. That’s my personal view.
"It is definitely bad for business. We probably need to take a harder stance. I can tell you the sponsors are not happy and they are entitled not to be happy."
Acting Cowboys chief executive Jeff Reibel said in a statement: "We are proud of the role the Cowboys play in the North Queensland community and all of our people, including our players, understand the responsibility that comes with their positions. Our club has built its culture around high standards both on and off the field and will continue to apply those standards in all decision making."
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