Grant Chapman: NRL finally holding dickheads to account

OPINION: After years of turning a blind eye, the NRL has finally taken a refreshing stand against the idiotic off-field behaviour of its players.

For too long, Australian rugby league - generally - has been prepared to cut its constituents way too much slack over their misdeeds, especially away from the game.

The events of the current off-season may have brought this issue to a head, but it's plagued the club competition for decades, dragging its image down to a level that administrators have been forced to say 'no more'.

The players and their representatives may not like the NRL's new 'no fault' stand-down policy, but they only have themselves to blame. They've been amply warned, and sooner or later, someone had to make a stand for the sake of the sport.

Here's a short list of the indiscretions (we know of) reported since last year's Grand Final:

  • Already under scrutiny for sexual assault in the United States, Jarryd Hayne is charged with aggravated sexual assault and inflicting bodily harm in Newcastle on Grand Final weekend.
  • Ben Barba's contract with North Queensland is torn up and he's deregistered by the NRL, after video emerges of him assaulting his partner at the Townsville casino in January.
  • St George forward Jack de Belin is charged with aggravated sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman at Wollongong in December.
  • Manly centre Dylan Walker is also facing assault charges, after he allegedly attacked fiancée and former Miss Universe Australia finalist Alexandra Ivkovic in December.
  • Sex tapes become the latest plague on the NRL, with Sydney Roosters forward Dylan Napa and Penrith half Tyrone May starring in their own X-rated productions.
  • Greg Inglis is charged with drink-driving, after he was caught speeding between Dubbo and Sydney in October. The offence costs him the Kangaroos captaincy against the Kiwis.
  • Closer to home, Isaiah Papali'i is also suspended from the Warriors' season-opener against the Bulldogs, after he is caught drink-driving during the off-season.

Many of these complaints have involved women in an age when the world - and even the NRL - has become acutely aware of both treating women better and the marketing power of a female audience.

Jack de Belin leaves court with his lawyer
Jack de Belin leaves court with his lawyer. Photo credit: AAP

In truth, while rugby still reigns supreme in New Zealand - perhaps to its detriment, at times - Australian rugby league faces red-hot competition in a packed sports market that includes AFL, A-League football, the National Basketball League and to a lesser extent, Super Rugby.

All (except Super Rugby) have women's competitions that cater to a female clientele - it's no surprise the NRL followed suit last season.

Rugby league is under severe pressure to maximise every opportunity and minimise every threat, and perhaps its biggest threat is players doing stupid and illegal things.    

Most of these acts should be covered by the 'code of conduct' section of any player contract - thou shalt not bring rugby league or the NRL into disrepute. Being charged with anything should be enough to envoke that clause.

But the 'no fault' policy, which enables the NRL to stand players down while they face charges, is as much a punishment as it is an acknowledgement that those players can't be associated with the brand during this challenging period.

The player, whether he's innocent or guilty, needs to channel all his energies into resolving the matter, while his club and teammates shouldn't have to deal with the distractions he brings to their workplace.

And the new policy is really no different to that found in any workplace in the civilised world. If you fall foul of the law, you too can expect to be sidelined until you've cleared that legal process.

On Wednesday, Fox Sport's League Life aired a special 'Claiming Our Game Back' episode that directly addressed the off-field issues, with NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg fronting to defend his new stand-down stance.

Perhaps the most poignant voice on the assembled panel was Canberra Raiders coach and legend Ricky Stuart, who expressed the frustration of trying to take a stand against dickheads, only to see them embraced and rewarded by other clubs, despite their anti-social behaviour.

In recent years, the Raiders have rejected Blake Ferguson, Josh Dugan, Joel Monaghan and Todd Carney on club-culture grounds, but they found homes elsewhere in either the NRL or English Super League.

This is why the mass condemnation - across the world and across codes - of Barba has also been significant. While he fights a lifetime NRL ban, he's also been red-carded by England's Rugby Football League and Rugby Australia.

Stuart blames the epidemic on an attitude of self-entitlement among players.

Barba has had to find alternative employment as a truck driver and Stuart insists, if the NRL had made a stand earlier in his career, he would have realised the error of his ways sooner and turned them around.

"These players have to understand how privileged they are to be an NRL player."

Hopefully that penny has finally dropped.

Grant Chapman is the Newshub online sports editor.

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