The strange case of NRL players in today's age
To many observers, footballers are mysterious creatures – running the gamut from the socially-challenged, monosyllabic stereotype to the gregarious, articulate and charming. Few in the Australian media know them better than long-time Herald columnist Steve Mascord, who explores the subject in detail in his new book, Touchstones. The following passage is an extract from the chapter entitled "On rugby league players."
Professional rugby league players can be quite a curious breed.
There was a day not too long ago when I was in a suburban Sydney cafe with a couple of officials, who were in full, almost blindingly colourful, club garb of the local NRL team. In loped a hefty prop and lithe centre from the same club, wearing the same clothes. They sat at the next table. They did not acknowledge their co-workers. Not a word.
There are two exceedingly peculiar things about this. One: co-workers at any other business in this suburb would at least nod to one another — unless they hated the other group. Which brings us to two: that being the case, why sit at the next table?
It is my experience that the majority of professional rugby league players in Australia — not a "vast" majority, just the majority — enter most rooms with blinkers on. They do not meet the eyes of others. They certainly don't engage strangers spontaneously in conversation.
When I was a cub reporter, I figured this was how all important adults behaved.
But as I grew older, no one else took up ambivalence as enthusiastically as Australian rugby league players. If their club has a "media session", they sit in the corner like shy girls waiting for someone to ask them to dance.
There is a fear of the media, often justified, though I feel that the worst of the enmity between the second row and the fourth estate, as it were, has cooled. We no longer see stories as page leads about players parking in handicapped spots, and when someone is in trouble for urinating near a police car, social media or the constabulary's own public-relations department beat the mainstream hacks to the punch.
Nonetheless, there is still this 'bubble' around our stars. I can identify a number of reasons for this. There is the sense of camaraderie formed on sand hills, at military training camps and a hundred brutal training sessions, of which a natural by-product is the shunning of others. You don't talk much during a beep test — communication is done with nods and grunts and many players take this restricted vocabulary into their daily lives.
Bear in mind, most of these fellows are not being paid to "play sport" in the sense that you may imagine that concept. "Playing sport" implies fitness, skill and competitiveness, yes, but it also implies a sense of guile, risk taking and adventure. Very little risk taking is encouraged in the modern NRL.
If you were walking around in anticipation of simply running repeatedly into a wall (albeit with a little footwork) at the end of the week, would you be cracking jokes and shaking every hand in the room? You would have the visage of someone about to be turned into mincemeat.
I can only put that down to comparative intensity — not of the competitions but of the media coverage and the coaches. Only three of the ten national dailies in the UK have a rugby league writer (not full-time or staff — not even a regular stringer!)
And then there is the pampering by clubs of individuals plucked straight out of school. The learning of basic social skills such as saying "hello" and "goodbye" to people in your presence does not seem to take a high precedence.
I ALSO BLAME COACHES
Coaches use the public utterances of rivals to motivate their own charges. While journalists are supposed to be governed by a code of ethics in what they report and how they report it, there are no such pleasantries among the clipboard carriers.
In 1993, Wayne Bennett distributed to his team an entire tactical tip sheet purportedly compiled by his grand final rival, St George's Brian Smith, which Bennett said had come into his possession. Covering the game for AAP, I could not understand why Broncos players were openly willing to take swipes at Smith after their 14–6 victory at the Sydney Football Stadium. As far as they were concerned, he had derided them. Kevin Walters believed Smith had described him as a defensive weakness. Smith had done no such thing. Bennett had motivated his men with a lie. He wrote the tip sheet himself. This is the real story behind Allan Langer encouraging a crowd to sing 'St George Can't Play' later that night.
But the real sting is this: most of the 1993 Broncos would be grateful they were lied to. Lies are sometimes the currency of rugby league, the catalyst for getting things done when reality indicates you are just a bunch of men dressed in bright colours with socks pulled up like schoolboys, running into each other to sell alcohol and punting to the western suburbs of Sydney. Rugby league is sometimes a form of voluntary self-hypnosis — we know what we are being fed is horseshit but we need a bit of horseshit in our diet.
And if that involves hating the opposition, or the media, or anyone, even though we have no logical reason to do so, then so be it. Winning is as far above logic in rugby league's list of priorities as Mt Fuji is above a leaking nuclear reactor.
Having said all that, there are gregarious people in rugby league as well as introverts. Former winger Anthony Quinn, now of the Rugby League Players Association, calls them "social butterflies". Wests Tigers' Aaron Woods and veteran Willie Mason are butterflies that were never slugs. Others, such as superstar Johnathan Thurston, have become approachable and amiable with the end of their careers in sight. That is not to suggest Thurston is disingenuous — he has clearly matured with increased responsibility on and off the field, including fatherhood.
It takes courage to play rugby league — but it also takes intestinal fortitude of a different kind to break from the playing group in a social situation and go shake hands with a sponsor or a media person. Football teams are intensely conformist units and individuality is tested and tacitly discouraged during a pro's career. It's one of the few areas in sport where a comparison with the army is not gauche.
I covered a number of Brad Fittler's misadventures as a player — from missing a flight back from a New Zealand tour after a big night out to being late for an Anzac wreath-laying ceremony in the week before a trans-Tasman Test when he was captaining his country — and only really developed a relationship with him after he retired. I can remember Freddie as a 19-year-old, on the shuttle bus to the plane which took the 1991 Australia side to PNG, engrossed in a copy of Hustler. Today, I find him inspirational – he's been through the wringer of coaching since all that and approaches television commentary as something that everyone else can take seriously if they like.
Football provides opportunities for working-class men — and only a small percentage of those opportunities are directly connected to playing the game. Players are dealing with people on an almost daily basis who they would not have met had they gone to work at the local paper-clip factory. These people can teach the players things they would not otherwise learn and create job opportunities that would not otherwise be available.
But who am I to lecture about lost opportunities? I've frittered away what would otherwise be called "my life savings" on plane tickets, beer, CDs and taxi fares.
In some ways, during my 30 years covering their exploits and quizzing them dozens of times a month, rugby league players have made the complete transition in society from hunters to hunted. In the '80s and early '90s, I witnessed some appalling behaviour. The Queensland-appointed manager on Kangaroo tours always seemed to be fair game to be belittled and even roughed up by players. Property was damaged wantonly at times on these tours. I recall a drunken player smashing the heads of two English broadcasters together and spitting in the face of an opposition player's wife — within minutes. I witnessed a player call a female fan a "buzzard" at a post-match function in Parkes. I received a letter from a traumatised production assistant who was horrified and disgusted by the behaviour of players during the shooting of the 1997 Super League TV commercial.
By comparison, today's stars are seraphic.
But it is as if the public and media are intent on punishing the current batch of footballers for the boundless sins of the previous generation, none of which they can prove due to the absence of Vine, Facebook, Instagram or even a Polaroid or two.
So today's NRL footballers, by and large, keep to themselves.
I FIND AUSTRALIAN PLAYERS IN SUPER LEAGUE TO BE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
For some of them, perhaps it is because I'm a familiar Australian face a long way from home.
But in this age of NRL players joining Super League clubs and then returning to the NRL, we have the stunning phenomenon of aloof fellows suddenly becoming personable and approachable — and then returning to aloofness again! Tonie Carroll is one I can think of — a man whose warmth came out in frigid climes and whose coldness returned in the sun.
Many of today's young players have been kept so far from the media that they can have had no "bad experiences". Yet, I can remember as recently as 2006 being told by a sports editor to ring every Parramatta player photographed standing under the goalposts for a quote and having no trouble doing so — without going through the club. I lost one of my early mobile phones and when I got it back, the finder asked, "Why have you got the entire Canberra Raiders team in there?"
Today, some reporters have various players' phone numbers but if they were to quote that player without the club PR being aware of the conversation, the Hounds of Hell would be released.
"It's a lot different to when I started," Robbie Farah told me when he was the Wests Tigers captain. Farah made his NRL debut in 2003. "Back then, you used to have relationships with some of the [media] guys. There were ones you liked and ones you didn't like, ones you would talk to. Nowadays it's very structured. You get told where to go, what to do, who to talk to. It's part of the obligation of being a footy player."
Fair dinkum club PR staff will not insult you with claims that this sterile process is about "being professional". They'll admit it's about "controlling the message". They don't want their players becoming mates with media men, who not only pass information onto the public for a living but also deal with other clubs. But "controlling the message" often leads to no message at all ... just sanitised and innocuous club-sanctioned reports. Rugby league from Monday to Friday becomes a monochrome product and the mainstream media is left with only bad news to report.
The game is at (yet another) crossroads. If it continues to hide its practitioners away from the public, more and more they will become just like other entertainers – out of touch, eccentric, antisocial. With no reference points to the outside world, problems are magnified and, resultantly, so is the danger of self-harm.
Yet rugby league does not reward players sufficiently for them to be able to retire on their earnings. What happens when the music dies and the circus leaves town? What happens when those curious rugby league players have to rejoin the rest of us?
Touchstones: Rugby League, Rock'n'roll, the Road and Me, by Steve Mascord, Stoke Hill Press, $29.95
- Sydney Morning Herald