Richard Boock takes on rugby league

You can see why Richard Boock is the Qantas award-winning sports columnist for 2009 from his latest article:

WHAT IS the world coming to? It’s bad enough for the poor NRL players as it is, banned from binge drinking on some days and prohibited from frequenting nightclubs on others. But now they’re being told to knock off the group sex thing? Outrageous. You wonder what the authorities can be thinking. Next thing they’ll be instructing their players to treat all women with respect rather than as a potential gangbang.

You can see why the players are getting fed up. One of the unwritten rules of the NRL was always an understanding that, if any of them should score a slapper, they were duty-bound to share her with the rest of the squad. That, and the practice of hiding a couple of the boys in a wardrobe so that they could leer at their team-mates. The group root was one of the last bastions of blokedom, after all. What were they supposed to do now?

It’s not just the Aussie league players, either. A New Zealand cricket team was embroiled in a similar controversy before a tour in the mid-1990s, the Kiwi league team landed itself in disgrace in 2007 and the England rugby team’s stocks plummeted last winter after a player took a woman back to his hotel room, where he was joined by a few of his team-mates. “All for one and one for all,” was never about just on-field loyalty.

For all that, if the practice of gang-banging young women was to become an international sport, the NRL would automatically become the home ground of the champions. Whether it’s been the Bulldogs and their reprobate behaviour at Coffs Harbour in 2004, Dane Tilse and his Newcastle Knights in 2005 or the Brisbane Broncos in a hotel toilet last year, the idea of treating all women as garbage seems firmly established as a guiding principle.

No wonder, then, that so many are rushing to defend their code against the fallout from this week’s ABC Four Corners documentary, which lifted the lid on a Christchurch woman’s historic sexual abuse allegations against several Cronulla Sharks players, including Matthew Johns. She was asking for it, apparently. It was consensual, they argued. As always, so quick to judge the women’s behaviour; so reluctant to condemn that of the players.

What were the details again? Up to six of them having turns with her; others standing around masturbating and still others just laughing and gawking. Classy stuff, indeed.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves, either, that this has anything to do with lust; it hasn’t. Power tripping and a pack mentality are the prerequisites for men who abuse women in this manner. It’s even been claimed that some NRL coaches have hired prostitutes for their players to work over, in order to boost the team bonding process. Over the past decade, in a competition that’s only recently been expanded to 16 teams, 10 sexual assault allegations have been levelled. NRL boss David Gallop is right to be outraged.

Mothers of young, sport-loving sons should not have to think twice about the current climate before deciding that the league environment is better avoided. Just the suggestion that young sportsmen will be encouraged to act like wild animals towards the opposite gender, taking everything they can get and exploiting all carnal opportunities, should presumably act as a massive recruitment obstacle. It’s not the law that separates humanity from barbarism, after all. It’s morality; judgement.

It’s about the ability to not take advantage of someone’s vulnerability, even when there is an opportunity. It’s about the ability to have some compassion, not to mention an independent mind. The Sharks players might not have been guilty of breaking the law in Christchurch; but neither would they have been if they’d gang-banged an 80-year-old. That they hadn’t acted illegally should hardly be interpreted as an endorsement of their behaviour.

These guys might not be rapists, but they are the next worst thing. They are men who would be horrified to discover their mothers, wives, girlfriends or daughters associated with such behaviour, yet are hypocritical enough to take advantage of an apparently anonymous opportunity themselves. Why? Because they feel lionised by their sporting success; because they feel they can flout social norms, and, above all, because they think they can get away with it.

A solution? The Sydney Roosters have already touched on the most obvious path to redemption, by involving the players’ wives, partners and children far more closely when the team is playing away from home. It’s interesting, isn’t it? That the Matthew Johns of this world would never indulge in group sex if their partners were in town; only when they were on their own, accompanied by male team-mates. Talk about men behaving badly.

If anyone still disputes that the Sharks players were judged undeservedly this week, they should take note of the reaction from Johns’ wife, Trish, who was reported to be physically ill after watching her husband answer questions about the incident during an interview on Channel Nine’s A Current Affair. At one stage, while denying almost everything except infidelity and stupidity, he unwittingly managed to sound like Bill Clinton. “I did not commit an act of abuse to that woman,” he told the interviewer.

The Four Corners’ doco was a story about arrogance and misogyny. It was also a reminder about what can go wrong when we create a culture in which elite sporting figures are adulated, feted, and revered, no matter how immoral their behaviour may be outside the field of competition. Not to mention a sobering warning for those Kiwis who continue to wish we had more of Australia’s “winning” mentality.

Clearly, that doesn’t come without some baggage.

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