Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

WORTHY CAUSE: The Newcastle Knights arrive at John Hunter Hospital on Thursday. Sadly their visit was overshadowed by the arrest of Jack de Belin. Picture: Jonathan Carroll IT was a grim reminder of the challenge NRL officials face in trying to portray theirplayers as fine, upstanding young men and squeaky-clean ambassadors.
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On the same day a busload of Newcastle Knights arrived at John Hunter Children’s Hospital to brighten the livesof kids suffering from serious health issues, a dark cloud was cast over the image of the game as a whole.

Just hours after the Knights had distributed gifts, signed autographs and posed for selfies, police charged St George Illawarra and NSW Origin forward Jack De Belin with aggravated sexual assault after an alleged incident last weekend.

The two stories ran side by side in this paper.

In theDailyTelegraph, the Knights did not even rate a mention, whereas De Balin was splashed across page one.

The allegations against De Belin capped offa horrendous week for rugby league, after the much-publicised appearances in court of Jarryd Hayne and Dylan Walker.

Hayne, already facing civil proceedings for an alleged rape during his time playing NFL for San Francisco, pleaded not guilty tocharges of aggravated sexual assault after disturbing allegations made by a woman in the Hunter Region two months ago.

Walker denied assaultinghis fiancee, andshe reportedly intends to retract a statement made to police and emerged from court holding hands with the Manly utility back, having apparently reconciled.

Not forgetting new Wests Tigers recruit Zane Musgrove, who added to the procession of sordid headlines when he was charged last week with anact of indecency, and aggravated indecent assault.

The unfortunate reality for the Knights and every other NRL club is that they could visit 100 hospitals a year, or help 1000 little old ladies to cross the street, but good-samaritan acts such as these will always be overshadowed by occasional incidents of players disgracing themselves.

Those who feel inclinedtoblame the media for a “negative” outlook are basically shooting the messanger.

Journalists are only catering for their market. Any time a rugby league player is involved in an off-field scandal, you can guarantee it will go viral on the internet.

Is this the media’s fault?

It strikes me as a chicken-or-the-egg type of argument.

The bottom line is that this is the society in which we live, butfootballers bringing the game into disrepute is certainly no recent phenomenon.

I would suggest today’s players are actually far less likely to behave inappropriately than their predecessors of 20 years ago.

It’s just that previous generations did not have to contend with closed-circuit television and mobile-phone cameras, and reporters of bygone eras abided by the unwritten policy of “what happens on tour, stays on tour”.

Attitudes have changed.

In this day and age, people are unlikely to turn a blind eye to after-hours indiscretions. It is unrealistic for anyone to expect that 100 per cent of NRL players will conduct themselves impeccably100 per cent of the time.

Some will inevitably make the same mistakes as other young men.

But perhaps the real dilemma for the NRL is how to deal with those who do transgress.

On the same day that De Belin was charged, NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg spoke at a meeting of chairmen and CEOS of every club, urging them to remind their players of their “responsibilities”.

Greenberg noted that there were close to 500 players in the NRL and the majority “do the right things”, but added “sometimes they make bad choices and there are big consequences that go with that.”

But are those consequences big enough?

I read a thoughtful column this week, arguing that the problem with implementing life bans is that they eliminate the chance of a Matt Lodge-style redemption story.

The likes of Lodge and Russell Packer are now advertisements for how players who commit terrible crimes can turn their lives around and contribute to the game’s greater good.

But I can’t help thinking they mighthave been equally effective role models if the NRL adopted a zero-tolerance approach.

Imagine if the penalty for such anti-social acts was to be permanently cast on the scrapheap, and given directions to the nearest Centrelink branch.

It wouldn’t completely cure the problem, but it would be a powerful deterrent.

Moreover, the NRL’s overall credibility would quite possibly grow in the eyes of fans and sponsors.

Too often it seems that the priority of clubs is to help a de-registered playertick the required boxes, convince the NRL’s integrity unitthat he has transformed into a fit-and-proper person, and return him to the playing field at the earliest opportunity.

Rather than asking the clubs to have a quiet word to their players, maybe it’s time for Greenberg and ARL Commission chairman Peter Beattie to show some leadership.

A little bit of harsh justice might go a long way.

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