Stewart affair: Tackling Rugby League culture

Jeremy Halcrow

An opinion piece looking at the media's attack on Rugby League culture may look like a 'dumb and dumber' rant.

The temptation on this site is to get all high-brow and think the really important debates happen on the op-ed pages of the Sydney Morning Herald.

But the truth is that the ethical debates that really influence the punters happen in the tabloids, or on sports and entertainment pages.

This week the sports headlines leapt onto the front page with the news that NRL pin up boy Brett Stewart had been accused of sexual assault, then charged by the police and suspended by the NRL.

So I sought some expert advice to help assess some of the main media themes used to critique Rugby League culture as the Stewart affair unfolded this week.

Helping me out is the Rev Steve Stubbings, NSW Sports Chaplains co-ordinator and chaplain at Penrith Panthers. Steve is also a Baptist pastor of a church at Narellan in Sydney's south-west.

I hope my media analysis and his NRL-insider insights help you make some sensible, informed and theologically shaped comment for those after-church Footy chats.

1. Claim: NRL has an alcohol problem

Overshadowed by the Manly players’ drunken launch to their season was a number of other incidents involving the bad behaviour of NRL players. The SMH pulled them all together into a full-page presentation which heightened the dramatic impact.

Topping the list was the news that Todd Carney had been banned both from the UK and his hometown of Goulburn because of a string of alcohol-related crimes, and yet he had landed a gig with a Queensland club which includes working in the sponsor's pub to help his recovery.

How dumb is that? It would be like giving a meth addict a job in a Codral factory. 

The Carney example is being used to suggest that the whole Australian RL edifice is founded on a dangerously parasitical relationship with alcohol. The argument goes that the common link between nearly every major football scandal in the past decade: a deeply embedded culture of alcohol-fuelled boorishness that has led many footballers to serious ongoing abuse of this sponsorship product.

SBS columnist Jesse Fink writes: "Ever been in a nightclub and watched an intoxicated, overpaid rugby league player walk in like he owns the place? That he is entitled to every woman within a ten-metre radius? I have. I’m sure you have. It happens all the time. And it’s the NRL that has to take responsibility for it - not put it back on the clubs… It can start turning around this rampant culture of binge drinking and bad behaviour by not taking money from companies who sell alcohol. Without alcohol sponsorship, without the revenues generated by alcohol sales in licensed leagues clubs, there wouldn’t be an NRL. The game is built on a river of beer.”

Steve says:

It’s fair enough to say that historically there has been a culture of alcohol abuse in Rugby league. [Steve has been an NRL chaplain for over a decade]. in that time there has been a move away from this at the professional level. I don't doubt it’s still an issue at the junior level. At Penrith the culture is not one where there is an expectation players will drink alcohol. Ten years ago there would have been an expectation. The alcohol culture I see in the NRL is no different than I generally see in south-west Sydney. The Todd Carney case shows that the NRL's welfare systems work. He was given numerous warnings.

2. Claim: League culture promotes violence against women

Jesse Fink's piece also touches on another related issue: the attitude towards women in League culture.

The notion that the real problem is not primarily alcohol-related but about attitudes towards sex is backed by substantive research that shows that sexual abuse of women is widespread in Australian society and escalates when men are made to feel like “stars” and receive “special social status”.

Over the years, the surrounding culture in League typified by Channel 9's Footy Show, especially its jokey 'Bring back the Biff' campaign towards violence certainly hasn't helped.

Indeed this kind of off-hand attitude towards violence was reflected in a very unfortunate 'expert' opinion column in The Courier Mail claiming that League players bash women out of boredom when they have reached the top of their profession and have nothing else to aspire to.

More significantly, there is certainly a whole fan community that protects star players from facing up to the dark side of their humanity, including their mistreatment of women. Whatever the truth of the Stewart allegations it has been sad to see this process in full swing in Manly with the alleged victim being forced to flee her home because of fan abuse.

Steve says:

I'd want to defend the Rugby League on this at some level.

I don't see a lot of inappropriate attitudes towards women. Again it’s no different than that amongst the general young male culture. Sexual assaults happen to young women every weekend. It's a sad fact of our fallen world.

From what I've seen, it's a case of a few bad apples.

I do think it’s related to the players’ need to be exposed to the wider world outside their closed young male environment. At Penrith the players are being encouraged to work in the community. for example, some have been trained as teacher's aides to help out at local schools. Theologically, self-giving is important. when we don't we become inwardly-focused and think we are kings of the universe.. Every professional sportsperson has been feted as a high achiever and a superstar since they were at school and so there is a tendency for them to have internalised the message that they are invincible.

Research on adrenaline in contact sports does indicate that contact sports produce a enormous amount of adrenaline in players and there seems to be a connection between this and poor emotional responses, that could lead to inappropriate behaviour.

My theological perspective on that research is that people are slaves to choices that may be inappropriate.
. So it comes back to the fundamental hope we have in Jesus.

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