Mark Reason: NZ Rugby is a progressive employer but bad at getting message across

Dave Rennie, Steve Tew and Andrew Flexman faces the media to present the findings of the NZ Rugby investigation into the ...
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Dave Rennie, Steve Tew and Andrew Flexman faces the media to present the findings of the NZ Rugby investigation into the Chiefs' Mad Monday celebrations.

OPINION: New Zealand Rugby has a great, dirty rugby boot stuck in its mouth. Steve Tew, the chief executive, is a very fine administrator, but he is about as good an orator as Tinky Winky. Time and again Tew says the wrong thing and he says it too late. In so many ways the NZR is one of the most progressive and enlightened employers in this country, but it is hopeless as getting its message across.

Most industries know that it doesn't matter how good the product is, if no one knows about it. The weapons of the new commercial arms race are television, radio and online media. And there is absolutely no excuse for not knowing that in this country, because the commander-in-chief is one of the glibbest suckers who ever walked the planet.

It does not matter that this government can be reasonably accused of having overseen increases in unemployment, child poverty, homelessness, inequality and environmental pollution. What matters is that Key can wave his lips in the air and make it all go away. What matters is that Key is such a matey mate that he can admit that he wees in the shower on the radio. That's taking responsibility.

You had to smile when Key said of the stripper scandal, "I think the Chiefs would be very disappointed in their behaviour."

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Our leader knows when to take the high road. Never mind that he refers to a shirt as a bit gay on radio, casually endorsing the type of homophobia that happened at the Chiefs' mad Monday. Never mind that he continually tugs on a waitress's ponytail. It was just "banter," said Key. Rugby players are held to a higher standard than the prime minister.

In years to come the Chiefs will be a case study for employment and media experts. New Zealand Rugby did not do all that much wrong, except lose control of the vehicle. That allowed commentators with a women's rights agenda to make up stories that even now are still being repeated as fact.

Louise Nicholas, a campaigner on the issue of violence against women, was appalled that the investigation into the stripper's allegations had not questioned Scarlette at the start of the process. She felt for her and was disgusted by an investigation that brought the rugby union into disrepute. In fact Scarlette had declined to be interviewed in the early stages of the investigation.

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue wrote an open letter saying that NZ Rugby's judiciary process is not appropriate for "dealing with issues of integrity, mana, respect and basic personal rights...The open letter is about letting NZ Rugby know that enough is enough and we want them to take us up on our offer to support them through this process. As much as New Zealanders love rugby – we need New Zealanders to respect women."

In fact New Zealand Rugby were legally obliged to follow due process because for them this was an employment issue. They could not just chuck the Chiefs players under the bus as the feministas would have them do. They had to try to find out what actually happened and not believe every word that comes out of a woman's mouth as Nicholas and Blue complacently did.

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But unfortunately Tew, who had previously admitted that NZ Rugby took too long to come forward with their allegations of an Australian bug in the All Blacks team room, made the same mistake again. He took far too long to come forward and when he did, the story was out of control.

Two years ago when Brent Impey, the former CEO of MediaWorks, became chairman of the rugby union, he said, "The face of the organisation should be the chief executive...I'm actually hoping this is my last interview."

It was not his last interview. Impey spoke to Fairfax as part of this investigation. He had to speak because his chief executive is not very good at it which is unfortunate. The late Cliff Brittle, former chairman of the RFU, was one of the great visionaries, but like Tew he wasn't very good at getting the vision across

When the game went professional Brittle advocated a model for England that was very close to New Zealand's, but with significantly more commercial innovation in terms of broadcasting rights, owning their own signal and developing a hospitality infrastructure. Unfortunately Brittle was such a poor communicator, such a poor people's person, that the clubs, in connivance with Sky television, were able to destroy him.

Brittle was up against the likes of Sir Tim Bell, Maggie Thatcher's spin doctor, and he discovered to his cost that words were more powerful than ideas. That is the challenge for Tew and New Zealand Rugby. They may be the most progressive union in the world, which I believe they are, but if activist women repeat over and over again that they are old, white dinosaurs, then the message eventually turns into the truth.

When Tew went on Paul Henry to talk about the Losi Filipo case, it was a disaster. The story had already got away from the union. When Tew intimated they had offered Filipo some support, Henry cut in and said, "Do you know what, I don't care about him Steve. I care about the four people whose lives have been compromised, one of them a very promising rugby player who will never play again."

Tew said that there was a process to work through. "Not in terms of calling the victims, there aren't,' said Henry, as we stood on the sidelines and cheered. We are partial to a bit of righteous lynch mob mentality. This was fun. Again NZ Rugby had arrived too late on the scene.

They needed to be part of the discussion much earlier. It might have been good to know, for example, that when George Moala was found guilty of a violent crime in 2015, New Zealand Rugby insisted he participate in an educational video around alcohol and anger. It has since been played to hundreds of young men and women and it is extremely effective.

After Filipo's extraordinary discharge without conviction, Neil Sorensen, the general manager of professional rugby at NZR, visited the parents of the victims. He said, "Look I'm not 100% sure why I'm here. I'd like to be honest and this might be raw - but I personally believe society is better off with Losi Filipo being in rugby than not being in rugby.

"If he is in rugby for another five years the chances of him bashing people diminishes. He has more chance of dealing with anger and alcohol and other issues."

Quite understandably two of the parents said they just didn't care. But instead of platitudes the NZR offered help. They flew a barrister down from Auckland to Wellington who met the parents on the Terrace and talked them through the forthcoming legal process, the police appeal, the family's rights. They provided a clinical psychiatrist for those victims who might need support.

I rang Sorensen and he does not want NZR to be seen as trying to sell themselves. But to some extent that is what they need to do. People need to know that Aaron Smith turned up for his NZR meeting with legal advice, because in both his case and the case of the Chiefs players, there were issues of employees rights that NZR had a legal duty to observe.

People need to know that 50% of employees at NZR in Wellington are women. It is not the environment that Nicholas had portrayed or expected, as she subsequently acknowledged. After the Chiefs debacle, NZR collectively decided they need to pause and reflect and get better. Instead they have gone from one saga to the next and haven't yet had that opportunity.

I put it to Sorensen that if a bunch of forestry workers hired a stripper for a function that got a bit too lewd, we wouldn't hear anything about it. So why is rugby held to a different standard. This is what he said.

"That's a poor excuse. We are a reflection of society. If you say rugby unifies New Zealand, if you say better people make better players and if we are going to pay young men six times the average wage when they are 21, we have to accept criticism if we dip below the moral line. We get massive commercial support from sponsors, we get massive emotional support from Kiwi fans and we have to be better. If we want to inspire and unify, then we can't have strippers, we can't bash people, we can't have sex in public toilets. We have to be better than that."
 

 - Sunday Star Times

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