In an offside position
Let me get this out of the way. I'm a huge rugby league fan. I own three separate Penrith Panthers beanies despite only having one head. I sat, freezing in the dark in a state forest and neglecting my platoon of cadets to listen to Penrith defeat the Roosters in the qualifying finals in 2014, tearing through my phone's 3G in the process. Nevertheless, not even the hardiest of rugby league fans could claim that the game is without its problems. Too often have footy fans rolled out of bed to the calamitous words of “Player X involved in alleged assault” sprawled out on pages of the paper's sports section. Time and time again, players have let alcohol get the better of them and have ended up making the news for all the wrong reasons. That isn't opinion, that's the stone cold truth.
Corey Norman's recent arrest for drug possession has only confirmed the ‘bad boy” sti’ma of countless rugby league players, and the code in general. I write, however, not to re-hash long-standing theories about the problems of the NRL's off-field situations. I am here to account for the lack of disciplinary structure within the game and those promoting the game, which, in its lenience, condones the repetition of this kind of behaviour.
Let's start with a modern champion of the game. Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns played 249 games for The Newcastle Knights between 1993 and 2007 and is one of only two players to have received the Dally M Medal for the league's “best and fairest player” more than twice. But in August 2007, in the twilight of his stellar career, Johns admitted to regularly using ecstasy and other illicit substances during his playing career. Johns likened his habit to playing “Russian roulette”, claiming to often use the substances just days before he was due to train in a leadership role with The Knights. Later on, in 2010, whilst working as a coach at the New South Wales State of Origin camp, Johns allegedly referred to Queensland player Greg Inglis as a ‘black cunt’.
I am not, however, here to add to the chorus of disapproval many voiced at the time of these incidents. Certainly, the magnitude of these events speak for themselves. I am interested in the fact that Johns remains, despite these instances, a prominent member of Channel Nine's rugby league broadcasting team even to this day. It was, in fact, the NRL who promised Johns this position upon his retirement. Is it that Johns is a superior orator that his career as a commentator is warranted in spite of the aforementioned events? Watch Friday Night Football this week and judge for yourself. (No. He's not)
It is a certain nostalgia that has kept Johns on staff at Nine. A preoccupation with ‘the good ol’ days’, when Johns roamed the field in sprightly fashion, in that timeless era of evening grand finals, New South Wales origin success and of course the drug abuse. His occupation of a revered position on the Channel Nine commentary team points at the blokey larrikinism which typifies the persona of the retired rugby league player; the Paul Vautins, the Mark Riddells and the Beau Ryans.
In a sense, Johns is perhaps not to blame for his appointment to the position. What is to blame is rugby league's obsession with its history, with turning the other cheek and cutting the favourite son some slack. Turn on the rugby league this week. A commentator will invariably yearn for the days of pushing in the scrums or suburban stadiums. Going along with these relics of the game are condoned on-field fights between players, an ignorance of the concussion rule and the legality of the shoulder charge. This tendency to linger on the past is analogous to Johns' own position at Nine. It's a message to viewers that we are able to overlook racism and drug abuse if you can kick a ball to one end of the field and then chase it. The problems of this rationale speak to a deeper concern than the mere brutality of the game or the overtness of drug or assault allegations.
So in a game obsessed with its violent, unscrupulous past, can we really expect anything other than Russell Packer returning from an assault conviction to play for St. George, Danny Wicks returning from a drug supply conviction to play for Parramatta and Nate Myles being named co-captain of The Gold Coast Titans after repeated incidents of indecent exposure and public defecation? It will be, to say the least, interesting to see how the NRL handle Corey Norman’s situation in the coming weeks.