I have always watched NRL. In fact, if I’m being honest, I’ve always been a little bit fanatical about the game.
As a little kid I’d excitedly await home matches where I could don a Canberra Raiders jersey, beanie and paint my face like Shrek. My mum and dad would die laughing as I hid myself away working on my latest supporter’s banner. For birthdays growing up, my friends would buy me all the merch a girl could want: teddy bears, scarfs, stickers, flags, hip flasks…you name it, I had it. I cried actual tears when veteran Raiders player, Laurie Daley retired.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve toned back the signage and green face paint (a bit), but I still look forward to games and have even roped my British partner into the hype. It will always, always be a significant part of my life.
However, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the heartache Rugby League has caused me over the years, which I was forced to reflect on recently when a Women’s Agenda reader contacted me via Facebook to ask how I reconciled my love of the game with the pervasively damaging culture of the NRL.
As a Cowboys fan, recent news of player Scott Bolton’s alleged assault of a woman had shook the reader’s core and understandably so. Bolton allegedly grabbed a 49-year-old woman’s genitals at a dinner with teammates in May. He turned himself into police shortly thereafter.
In truth, her question was one I’ve asked myself a hundred times before; let’s just say Scott Bolton’s alleged assault had sickened me, but hadn’t shocked me. The NRL has been fraught with similar allegations over decades. Even more disturbing is the code’s willingness to welcome disgraced players back into the fray after only a short period.
In 2009 Cronulla Sharks’ Greg Bird was found guilty of glassing his girlfriend, Katie Milligan in the face and then lying about it. Bird had attempted to shift the blame regarding Milligan’s injuries onto his flatmate.
His conviction was soon quashed by a judge who surmised that “Unfortunately, perhaps because he is stronger than her, her wrist was forced backwards (into her face).”
During proceedings, Bird’s former coach Stuart Raper described him as a “soft and emotional bloke”. “Birdy is a very soft bloke. At times I would have him in the office upset at things he had done. He’s a fairly emotional type of guy,” Raper told The Australian.
That very same year, Bird signed a 12-month contract with the Gold Coast Titans, returning to the NRL after just 6 months.
This is just one thread in a rich tapestry of heinous behaviour the NRL’s turned a blind eye to over the years. Domestic violence, sexual assaults, drug offences, cheating, drink-driving and even a case of bestiality have plagued the code for as long as I can remember.
But slowly, surely, I can see a shift.
Rugby League is a game watched by a diversity of people all over Australia, not just Toohey’s-swilling, pie-eating men. It needs to be inclusive to maintain relevance.
Last year, US rapper Macklemore declared “equality for all” during his performance at the NRL grand final. At the peak of our debate on same-sex marriage, he sang ‘Same Love’ as rainbow-coloured fireworks exploded behind him. The NRL’s decision to host Macklemore was controversial amongst conservative commentators, but the organisation stuck to its guns.
It was a turning point.
In another landmark decision, this year the NRL will host the very first Premiership competition for women’s rugby league starting September. The Brisbane Broncos, St George Illawarra Dragons, Sydney Roosters and New Zealand Warriors will compete in the inaugural competition with NRL’s Chief Executive Todd Greenburg declaring that “For the first time, our best female players will have the opportunity to play in an NRL competition – on the game’s biggest stage.”
“It”s a big year ahead – and a really exciting year ahead – for our female rugby league players, as well as fans of our women’s game.”
Greenburg’s claims are spot on. For fans of the game, especially women, this new chapter is momentous. More than ever before I will feel included in the game I love so much.