Rugby League; or, the Game That Wouldn’t Grow Up

Rugba Leeg without social distancing

It’s a weird time, you know, with the rona and all, and there’s a lot of depressing and bewildering news. But perhaps nothing has been as delightful and strange and troubling as the drama that is the National Rugby League and their efforts to first stave off a season shutdown and now to restart the season and one form or another.

No idea is apparently off limits — there’s NRL Island, maybe a competition through to Christmas, perhaps a best of three grand final, or maybe the whole season should be just 15 rounds of State of Origin.

All these ideas have been trotted out by one significant rugby league figure or another and then Peter V’Landys has fronted up to Danny Weidler on Nine News each night (with Danny always very carefully in-shot) and talked about how much he’s fighting for the game and how important rugba leeg is and things of that nature.

On the one hand, I am all for this. It’s fun and something that’s not deaths and disease to fill air time during the day. I also love rugby league and if they can get a season restarted safely, it will make this economic and societal hibernation much more bearable.

But there is also something troubling about this whole charade, something that goes to the heart of Rugby League’s deep issues that go back decades. It has exposed the deeply dysfunctional culture around rugby league and especially in rugby league media.

All the major sporting leagues around the world have shut down, and while some have been floating ideas about how and when they can start up again, most of this work has been done behind closed doors. There’s not been the same trickle of news from the AFL or international sports like the NBA.

These codes have largely taken their medicine, prioritised public health and safety, and worked at how to restart without too much of a fuss.

Meanwhile, all the sound and fury around rugby league has culminated today with Channel Nine launching an attack on the NRL because they’ve invested all this money in the game and the NRL have apparently squandered it and they’re not happy with a shortened season.

Look, there’s no doubt some financial brinksmanship here, and this is an unprecedented crisis and the money might just not be there.

But spare me this talk of the “investment” Nine has put into the game.

The network that has only been showing all their games live for the last four years, that has served up some appallingly low quality analysis from ex-players who clearly don’t watch most of the games and have transparent conflicts of interest due to their presence on selection panels and team offices, that were not (are still not?) broadcasting live outside NSW and Queensland, that give barely any national free-to-air games to teams like the Warriors, Titans, Raiders, and Knights.

They have not invested any more than the bare minimum and sometimes less than that.

Only days before the start of the season, before the rona took over everything, Nine were driving stories about the tensions between V’Landys and Todd Greenberg and how Greenberg’s future was at risk.

But let’s not pretend Channel Nine are the only villains here. This crisis has laid bare just how self-interested and thirsty for confrontation so many rugby league figures are.

We the fans are served by a rugby league media landscape that, with few exceptions, talk down the game. They foster a toxic attitude to referees, they don’t do the research and don’t know who a lot of the players are, they over-hype and under-appreciate, they talk more about where a player will move to next year than where players are now, they serve as mouthpieces for player agents and club officials, and even sometimes go so far as to actually call Rugby League a shit game.

They are captive to the access-driven model of “journalism” that so hurts modern sport that they are incapable of talking about Rugby League in any framework that is not “crisis”.

But it’s not just journos — it’s club officials, player agents, ex-players, even some current players.

It was always ever thus.

Listening to the great Rugby League Digest podcast series on the Super League War has time and again demonstrated how Rugby League management has always been driven by personal feuds, by jobs for mates, by greed (from everyone, not just the usual scapegoats of Super League, the Broncos, and News Ltd), by nostalgia, by backwards attitudes to business and corporatism, and by and through the iron law of institutions.

The Super League War was complex and had many causes, but one of the key underlying cultural causes was the inability of those at the top of the game to reckon with the fact that if they wanted their game to be a professional powerhouse on the sporting landscape, they couldn’t keep running it like a local Sunday pub comp.

And if you peek under the surface, rugby league is stumbling its way through this current crisis because so many of the game’s stakeholders still think the same way. Too many people are focused not on what’s good for Rugby League but on what’s good for them.

They keep going back to the same playbook of division and agendas, rather than coming together to strengthen the game we all love.

A couple of years back, Todd Greenberg talked about how the game needed to grow up. This crisis has shown how right he was. We have all these Peter Pans in our game, playing over old fights, holding on to their place in their imaginary kingdoms, and refusing to look beyond themselves.

We can only hope that this strange time might bring about some of the growing up we need.

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