A couple of weeks ago, I was about to board a plane for Sydney when I received a phone call from a journalist.
“Why do you keep annoying Buzz?” the journalist asked with a laugh.
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Surely you read the article in Sunday’s paper?” he asked.
No. I didn’t read the article by The Sunday Telegraph’s Phil (Buzz) Rothfield.
“It’s about the email that you sent to the Chairmen,” he offered.
Of course it was. Why didn’t I get that immediately. When I wrote that private email to the Chairmen of the 16 NRL clubs, I did ask myself if I would be happy to see that published in a newspaper – because the chances of it being leaked to the newspaper were high. And clearly I wasn’t to be disappointed.
“Thanks for letting me know. Leave it with me,” I replied.
When the flight landed, I headed to a scheduled meeting with the Wests Tigers board and we had a conversation about the article and the email, and the factual differences between the two. The lawyer on our board had seen the article, most of the other directors were unaware of it.
Just to explain, I’m Chair of the Wests Tigers NRL Club and the Independent Commission’s constitution is undergoing reform to include two appointees chosen by the 16 clubs, among other changes.
The idea is to have at least two people on the commission who have some experience of running a rugby league club. Following an email about this that I sent to the 16 club Chairmen on November 14, an article was published in The Sunday Telegraph on November 19 stating that I didn’t have a high opinion of four business leaders, which couldn’t be further from the truth. All are successful people who would be brilliant for the game of rugby league. One of the four leaders mentioned by Rothfield would make an excellent club-appointed commissioner once his tenure as a club Chair ends this year.
I sent a copy of the email that I had sent to the Chairmen to our Company Secretary, CEO and the director with a legal background. Now usually I wouldn’t care what this particular journalist writes about me. Far worse has been written about me in the past by this journalist and although I have kept every one of those articles for another day, I have chosen not to give his articles oxygen. In this case we determined that it wasn’t ideal for three business people to believe that I didn’t think they were capable of being rugby league commissioners. There were four names mentioned in the article but one of them was also one of the Chairmen who received the original email so I knew that he would see the inaccuracy in the article – especially considering that I had already mentioned to him that I thought he would make a great club-appointed commissioner. I could easily contact each of the others to correct the inaccuracy, which I subsequently did.
The Sunday Telegraph refused to agree to publish a correction. They argued that the facts in the article were not inaccurate. I have published my email here for you to judge.
Subject: Re: Constitutional reform
Thanks for the time and effort that you have put into achieving this outcome Nick.
Is it worth reminding the clubs of the original purpose for club appointed commissioners? My understanding is that the intent originated from frustration that the commission lacked an understanding of the challenges and opportunities in Club land and therefore strategies not aligned.
It would be good to remember that when deciding on our club appointees. Most of the names currently being thrown around by the media do not have that key skill set.
Buzz Rothfield’s article about my email:
The email that I sent was in response to an email sent to all 16 Chairmen by South Sydney Chair Nick Pappas. Nick’s email served to update the group on where we had landed with regard to constitutional reform. We had been working on this for more than a year. It’s no secret that my club was one of the half dozen or so clubs that moved to agree to constitutional reform with some trepidation.
My main concern, as Chair of the Wests Tigers, was that without the correct control mechanisms, the independent commission could become a slave to board factions. I needed an assurance on behalf of my club, as did others, that we were changing the constitution for the right reasons, ie. to improve the game by ensuring that we get the right skill sets on the board. I had been told stories of power struggles and warring clubs that were apparently in the past due to the installment of an independent commission. But I had also been finally convinced that it was imperative to have directors on the commission who understand the challenges, and potential opportunities, of running a rugby league club, given that almost all of the clubs do not turn a profit. So we had all finally agreed that the commission would benefit from two club-appointed directors.
As a non-executive director of a number of commercial boards and one of only two female club Chairs in the NRL, I understand the need for diversity and diverse skill sets on boards. The Australian Rugby League Commission boasts some clever business people but no one who has experienced the tough reality of trying to run a profitable business in club land.
So my email in response to the one sent to the group by Nick Pappas refers to that – and if Phil Rothfield had contacted me to ask he would have known that. As I stated earlier, I had to stop to consider how comfortable I would be if the email was published in a newspaper. Unlike the rest of the chairmen this is something that I have to consider every time I send an email to the group.
I also considered not sending it, knowing that this could happen. But I had a very real concern that we would finish up with a collection of nominees who didn’t have the experience that I was led to believe that the sport so desperately needed – that of having run a rugby league club. And I wouldn’t be doing my job as the representative of a stakeholder in this sport if I didn’t speak up about this. I take my role as a club Chair in this sport seriously and part of the role is to help grow and improve the game. You can’t do that if you fear retribution every time you open your mouth or send an email. This is not the first time that an email that I sent to the Chairmen’s group was leaked to the media.
A number of the Chairmen sent me messages, mostly private, agreeing with the point that I made in the email. If the journalist had any confusion or concern with any part of the email that was leaked then a phone call to me would have clarified it. I didn’t receive a single phone call from the newspaper that wrote the inaccurate article.
No doubt such treatment would cause others to be silent. Well-meaning rugby league types have advised me to “keep my head down” and all of this will go away. They would no doubt be horrified that I am seeking to correct the facts. But it’s not in my DNA to be silent about the things that matter. And the governance of this sport matters.
Rugby league is a sport that is loved by millions of Australians, from all parts of the country and from all backgrounds. It is community based and it matters in the lives of our fans. Those of us charged with the responsibility of running the sport are accountable for its growth and prosperity.
I have requested that the next meeting of this group adopt Chatham House rules. You will know pretty soon if that doesn’t happen.