Sins of the NRL

Last week, Wests Tigers’ Tim Simona was handed a lifetime ban from the NRL. He confessed to charges of gambling on NRL matches, drug use and deceiving a children’s charity. The explosive tell-all interview, Sins of Simona, was the Sunday Telegraph’s cover story. It revealed that his punishable gambling was placing $900 worth of bets on 65 2016 NRL games. Simona, 25, also shared his troubled history with gambling which began with playing the pokies as an 18 year old.

And yet, on the same day the story went to the print, The Sunday Footy show continued to provide betting updates on the day’s games.

And yet, in the off-season, Brookvale Oval was renamed Lottoland Stadium.

And yet, all NRL clubs are sponsored by a betting agency, with exception to the Melbourne Storm whose primary sponsor is Crown Casino.

And yet, when we, the fans, discuss who the favourite is pre-kick off, we look to the betting odds and not to our knowledge and love of the game.

The NRL is not only complicit, but is wholly responsible for creating an institution-wide gambling culture. In its present state, it simply can’t be counteracted with the throw-away “and remember, gamble responsibly” at the end of every betting update, or have a government-sanctioned anti-gambling advert run at half-time.

For all of Simona’s poor choices and unethical behaviour, he was set up to fail by an organisation that wants their cake and to eat it too. While the NRL were busy collecting their profits from betting agency sponsorships and Leagues Club pokie machines, they delivered a hands-off punishment to a player who didn’t commit a crime, but messed with the integrity of the game. To reiterate, Simona’s lifetime ban is for 60 odd $20 bets on NRL games; not for his illegal consumption and possession of cocaine or unethical interactions with a children’s charity. There is no doubt that Simona deserves a hefty punishment for all his stupid, unethical and illegal behaviour; and he should also receive the necessary support for his self-admitted gambling problem.

***

The NRL has a chequered history when it comes to handing down punishments to players who commit stupid, unethical or criminal acts. And yet, it’s been proven time and again that what matters most to the NRL is their integrity – they have a whole Unit dedicated to it. There have been numerous players over the years that have “brought the game into disrepute”. The NRL’s integrity is more than its brand, or the administration, or the clubs, and hardly ever about the individual players, their families and victims of their behaviours/crimes. To bring the game into disrepute is to peel back the curtain on a culture that was created by and for men 122 years ago; a culture that fosters and celebrates entitlement, elitism, and excuses for men to behave badly (also known as “boys being boys”).

The NRL picks and chooses what tarnishes their integrity, and it’s usually whatever effects their bottom line. A 2010 Dally M winner, Todd Carney embarrassed the NRL with the “bubbling” incident; he was promptly de-registered (following a slew of other incidents as well). Son of a League legend and, NSW halfback Mitchell Pearce embarrassed the NRL in 2016 with the “terrier” incident; he was banned for eight weeks and fined a quarter of a million dollars. In 2009, the then up-and-coming Queensland forward Nate Myles embarrassed the NRL by taking a drunken shit in a hotel hallway; he was suspended for six weeks, banned from State of Origin, and fined $50,000.

Many believed these punishments were harsh, as these individual acts weren’t illegal but definitely stupid (and gross!) – Surely their personal embarrassment was enough of a punishment? According to the NRL, it wasn’t, as they were embarrassed too. These high-profile players were publicly punished by the organisation that pays their inflated wage. However, that was the wrong motivation for punishing those players, including Simona. The NRL has never acknowledged their own hand in allowing an environment for those players to do what they did. Those players absolutely deserved to be punished (and must take ownership for their own behaviour); not because they embarrassed the NRL, but because their bad behaviour and the culture in which it’s allowed to thrive must be eradicated.

Despite the warranted punishments, it can be difficult to fully accept the outcomes for those players, when other players who have committed acts of violence against women are hardly punished at all; in fact they are often rewarded. Why? Because domestic violence is a private matter that becomes “a matter for the courts”, therefore having nothing to do with the NRL’s precious integrity. Simona received his lifetime ban, yet Robert Lui who kicked and head-butted his pregnant girlfriend received a North Queensland Cowboys’ contract after serving just a one year ban. Pearce was fined $125,000, yet Greg Bird glassed his girlfriend in the face and was welcomed back into the NRL and, continued to be selected for NSW and Australia. Myles was banned from Origin, yet Semi Radradra who was been charged with several counts of assaulting his partner, has continued to play for the Parramatta Eels.

The NRL has failed so many in their piss-weak approach to domestic violence, first and foremost, domestic violence survivors. It’s pointless for the NRL to say that they’ll “offer support to the young lady/female involved” or for people to cry that the NRL doesn’t create domestic violence, but is simply a sub-section of a bigger problem in society. Instead of using their platform to make profits from unethical sponsorships, they must – as one of Australia’s largest organisations – do and be better when it comes to punishing players who commit domestic violence, and of equal importance, offering genuine and tangible support to the survivors of it. An International Women’s Day luncheon is not the answer.

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I’ve previously written about the challenges of being a woman, who by default, supports an organisation and culture that is so messed up – how’s that for a problematic favourite?! But I will love the game of rugby league until the day I die. My club’s 2010 premiership will remain of one of my life’s highlights, I will always check the round schedule before committing to catching up with friends, and I’ll always get anxious before an Origin game – the greatest sporting spectacle in the world.  It’s the game, not the organisation that is part of who I am. That’s not to say the game and organisation can be separated, they can’t. So as long as I’m a woman and rugby league fan, I will not shy away from calling out the bullshit (and demanding more) while still loving the greatest game of all that’s been part of my life for over 20 years.

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