Can you be a feminist and a rugby league fan?

Can you be a feminist and a rugby league fan?

That question was put to Women’s Agenda by a woman called Jenny who was clearly struggling to understand how she could be both a feminist and a rugby league fan when some of the off-field player behaviours towards women left a lot to be admired.

As the Chair of NRL club Wests Tigers and Founding Publisher of this feminist website Women’s Agenda I am uniquely positioned to attempt to provide a response to that challenging question. The short answer is yes. The longer answer addresses why and how.

I want to start by stating that the majority of rugby league players, like the majority of young men in our society, are decent, respectful people. But it is true that not all are. Just as it’s true that not all people are.

I refuse to make excuses for the bad eggs in our game. It’s a privilege to play rugby league at an elite level and the players are rewarded well above the national average wage for doing so. If I behaved in a way that brought the reputation of my employer into disrepute, regardless of how talented I was at my job, I would undoubtedly be left looking for alternative employment. But as is the case in the business world, every club seems to have differing tolerance levels for badly behaved players and staff. Every time a club accepts bad behaviour, the perception that we all do strengthens.

My club has taken a hard line on behaviours that are at odds with the culture and values that are important to us. It was Wests Tigers that terminated the contract of Matt Lodge a couple of years ago, following a domestic violence incident with his former partner.

My club has demonstrated zero tolerance for sexual harassment and violence against women.

And yet people unfamiliar with my club are constantly surprised when I point this out. It clearly doesn’t feel like the norm for a rugby league club.

Rugby league is more than a sport in the lives of our fans, which is why women like Jenny struggle to comprehend how the perceived values of something she loves could be so different to her own. It’s the reason why the leaders of the sport need to start seeing the whole of sport, the off-field player behaviours especially, through the eyes of its female fans if there is a true desire to grow the game’s pipeline of junior players, fans, sponsors and therefore finances. There needs to be a consistency in decisions about who can and who cannot play the game of rugby league – a game so cherished by its fans.

Like Jenny, I am a proud feminist. I chose to take on a leadership role with this sport almost four years ago, even though its reputation with women was on the nose. My initial motivation was to make a difference to the business of the rugby league club that my youngest son loved so much, and also to the diversity of the game, which had largely been run by groups of older men, doing the same thing for decades and achieving the same results.

Once inside the sport I quickly realised that the players had been much maligned.

The vast majority playing the game today are decent men who wouldn’t dream of harming or harassing a woman.

In fact many would characterise themselves as feminists, given that feminism is a belief that men and women are equal and should be treated as such. As a female leader in rugby league, I have been treated with far greater respect by most of the players than by some of the men who lead the sport.

The badly behaved players gain more than their fair share of media attention because it makes for a more exciting story than a footballer behaving well. Although there have certainly been wonderful examples of that, including my club’s Kevin Naiqama who not only gave his jersey to a terminally ill fan in the crowd after a game but who also visited her in hospital numerous times. And there was the young Newcastle Knights player who accompanied a terminally ill fan to her school prom. Amazing acts of kindness and humanity by men about whom many people would generally jump to negative conclusions because they are rugby league players.

There are hundreds of rugby league players doing fantastic work in the community away from the cameras, because they know they can bring joy to the lives of many who are suffering. The vast majority of rugby league players are decent young men.

Sport is an emotional commitment and that’s why our belief system is challenged when we suddenly find ourselves reading about players we admired displaying different values to our own. But rather than feminist fans, which the sport desperately needs more of, giving up on rugby league when a player behaves badly, we should be ensuring that NRL clubs and the governing body are given a clear message about how that behaviour makes women feel about the sport.

Why should feminists – or anyone for that matter – have to desert a sport that they love so much? Don’t walk away. Take a stand and help enforce the game’s intolerance for negative behaviours towards women.

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