MUCH has been made of NRL player behaviour in recent years.
As a head coach who has worked with some of the best, most promising and talented juniors over the last decade and a half, and many NRL players, I feel quite well placed to pass some comment and hopefully give some solutions.
Maybe without even realising it, in Australia the game has put many of our rugby league players in a bubble. And there’s a whole generation or two of them who know no differently.
Let’s think about it. Full time professionalism has only been an advent for about two or three decades. Up until recently, we had an Under 20s NYC competition that brought the profile of talented 18, 19 and 20-year-old footy players through the roof. They were TV stars before they’d become full time professionals.
I’ve seen it myself. A young player gets given a contract at 16, 17, 18 and, more often than not, he thinks he’s “cracked it” until a good coach, teacher or mentor keeps his feet on the ground. As NRL clubs scramble for his signature, they stroke his ego with compliments and talk about future prospects. Some NRL clubs are actually excellent at curbing expectations at this stage but others (in the form of their desperate recruitment managers) are not. Overall, the NRL clubs are OK in this regard but there a couple who have questionable approaches.
The player agents, though! Well, so many of them are a different kettle of fish. So many fill the kids and their families heads full of you-know-what, all so they can get their client – particularly if he is a new player agent trying to establish themselves. The phrase “over-promise and under-deliver” comes to mind when it comes to far too many player agents. Once again, there are a small few who are excellent at curbing these expectations. This isn’t a blanket statement about all agents.
Consider this too – a whole family may have relocated either interstate or internationally to support the player, based on the promises of a career in the game. It’s human nature for many kids and their families to sign with the agent or club that tells them what they want to hear.
Quite often, the ultra-talented kid when at school or junior clubs might be able to sit out training or even games so he can avoid injury. His club may hear of a discipline issue and once again, some clubs are excellently supportive of teachers but others are all talk and zero support.
The kid, when leaving school, might get a job for a while whilst playing 20s (which despite not being a national comp anymore still exists but in state form) but if his boss is a supportive league fan, will get time off work to train and travel with his team, may be removed from heavy duties and will definitely not do overtime missing out, once again, on the realities of life for many.
Without even blinking, a kid has gone through his teenage years lacking the experience of many of the “arresting” moments other “normal” teenagers might get. On top of that, all the training they do in evenings and games at weekends, stops them from doing normal teenage things. They spend most of it as a commodity rather than a child, teenager, young adult.
This is the rugby league bubble.
We often talk to kids about the pitfalls of what will happen if you “don’t make it” and how you need a back-up plan in terms of trade or education so you can earn elsewhere instead of rugby league when your dreams don’t come true.
With the way the game fell like a pack of cards after the Coronavirus hit and half the players ended up with wage cuts, you’d hope younger players would know the need for a back up plan in future!
But how often do we talk about the player who’s dreams DO come true ? Who’s adolescent and young adult life is something akin to a fairytale ? The player who has crowds chanting or cheering his name, gets asked for autographs and gets all the trappings of being a young professional? Who has had many things go his way or has been helped on his way all because he can play footy ?
Is it not human nature to think, if most people are pumping your tires up all the time, that you are invincible? That you can get away with things ? That everyone who comes into your life is a true friend and doesn’t just want to know you for what you can bring to their life?
Many of the players who have been in alleged incidents in the last few years probably fall in most if not all of the above categories. They were probably on TV regularly while their childhood mates were looking online for a job. They stood out from their peer group.
It seems we have produced a generation of footballers who have “gaps” in their life lessons. Their knowledge of what is right and wrong, sensible or silly, still needs some attention.
They’ve only been in the rugby league bubble.
It’s a bubble where the training demands are higher than ever.
Many players are not paid extravagant money because we are a salary capped sport, meaning they and their family are still living a similar lifestyle to the one they’d be leading if they weren’t a footy player in terms of leisure choices, house size, estate they live in, friendship circles etc.
Australia is also a country where any “big headedness” will be stamped on pretty quickly, so the young player is subconsciously taught to stay down to earth and do what “normal people do”.
Well, many normal workers do a week of work and then head to the pub, bar and / or nightclub at weekends. NRL players can’t do that. They may do a month or two or three months of work and then head to a pub/bar or nightclub (cause they want to stay normal and relax with their mates).(continues below)
When you haven’t had a beer for a while the effects can be, literally, mind boggling. Throw in some other substances that are commonplace now in our society and the opportunities to go off the rails are scary.
Peer pressure can be a huge thing and it goes until adulthood too, particularly when male testosterone in big groups is involved. The adulation players receive isn’t just in the football realm. It can also be in the community, in the shopping centres, in the pubs, bars and nightclubs.
If we look at the list of NRL player indiscretions in recent years in Australia, they are wide ranging and aren’t just caused by too much adulation in the community. But alcohol, nights out and negative dealings with females are a very repetitive theme.
On top of that, there is a media now that is having the biggest upheaval in its history. We get most of our news online within minutes of it happening, or we stream sporting events. So traditional media such as newspapers, TV and radio have to work differently to sell, because they aren’t as relevant as they used to be.
Knowing this, the rugby league media have to find new angles. Some of them think player behaviour is fair game so they go looking for that angle. These same players, who are trying to stay normal, who are used to getting away with things, who are often protected and who are having their first night out on the town for a while after a huge season of endeavour and putting their body through the wringer. This is the rugby league bubble.
When the game is restarted, Coaches, Recruitment Managers, Agents, Teachers, all Rugby League officials need to ensure that they don’t overly “pump a players tires up” and keep the feet of the players in their care firmly on the ground. One of the best clubs at doing this is Melbourne Storm. There is a correlation between this approach and a winning culture.
The NRL, QRL and NSWRL need to ensure that their education programs are rigorous in terms of addressing the issues outlined in the bubble. To be fair to the NRL in particular, my guess is that they are far down this line already, but education can often fall on deaf ears. And it can always be reviewed, updated and critically analysed. The lessons? Repeat them, repeat them, repeat them. Make sure contracts cover it too. Make sure clubs are accountable as to what they do in this regard.
Our players need to be taught rigorously about this modern media world we are in. Everyone is now a member of the paparazzi and most have a smart phone in their pocket with enough power to film and send high quality videos. We are all essentially a mobile news reporter now if we want to be.
The media we can’t change. They’ve got their own agenda, their own work practices and their own demands in their world. In this era of “media management” we have sometimes distanced ourselves from the media creating an “us v them” scenario. Not all of them are “bad” and the vast majority of them love rugby league with as much if not more passion than me or you reading this. Give them access like they’ve never had before to our players and coaches and you watch the media trends change over time as they fill their column inches with other stuff.
This isn’t about condoning the behaviour of players in anyway shape or form, it IS about trying to understand it and ensuring we as a game learn from it when we are back in business.
Lee Addison is the current Poland Test coach. Find him at rugbyleaguecoach.com.au