THE drug investigation swirling around Australian sport and the situation with Ben Barba attracted most of the attention in the lead-up to this season’s launch, but both issues have highlighted the duty of care rugby league owes to its players.
Both situations were poles apart, but equally concerning.
We all know the old saying about where there’s smoke there is fire, and that is what is the real concern out of the investigation being run by the Australian government and Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA).
In a high-profile, highly-lucrative sport that relies on attributes like speed, strength and recovery, you would be naïve to think that there is not some element – however small – using performance enhancing drugs.
And I am all in favour of the toughest penalties possible for those found guilty of trying to cheat their way to the top, at the expense of those who have sacrificed hours of hard work to chase their dream.
But what bothers me about the whole investigation from the outset has been the lack of transparency and specifics.
In essence, the investigation has been unable to name any individuals responsible, so have simply tarred every player and every club with the same brush.
It is unacceptable, and has tarnished the reputations of innocent young men who are doing nothing but playing the same sport as a few unidentified unscrupulous characters.
The game’s reaction and response to the drugs investigation has been lacking to say the least, and that bothers me simply because of the unfair load it is putting on clubs and the players.
For the most part, I think today’s NRL players understand the role they have as caretakers of the game. I talk a lot about legacies, and that is a responsibility all players must carry to uphold the traditions and values of the game.
If they are failing in their duties to the game, then they should cease being a part of it.
People do these things for selfish reasons, whatever they may be – whether they are not up to speed, want to make more money, want to reach higher honours, whatever.
You can’t wash this away by saying “this is a societal problem” or “lots of young men that age in society do it”.
Rugby league is not the rest of the world. It is its own world, based on different values like healthy lifestyle, clean living and getting the best out of your body and mind.
Those selfish players deserve to be exposed as cheats. Similarly, the vast majority that do things the right way deserve to be quarantined from them.
There is where the game needs to act and act now. The protection of the integrity of the game and its players are paramount.
Although the problems of Ben Barba are another world away from performance enhancing drugs, the lesson to be learned by the game in protecting its players’ welfare is one that the game needs to take seriously.
Playing rugby league is a high-pressure job, and it brings with it terrific financial rewards, public adulation, and the evaporation of anonymity and a private life thanks to the celebrity status that our sports stars enjoy.
But all of that landing on your shoulders at a young age, when you are not yet emotionally or mentally capable of dealing with must feel more than a bot overwhelming.
Players like Darren Lockyer and Cameron Smith handle those things in their stride of course, but they do have the benefit of experience and good support networks.
And that is where I think the game needs to be taking a better role with our young stars – mentoring them, educating and teaching them how to deal with things like handling your money wisely, dealing with sponsors and their responsibility to the image of the game.
The game has a huge, largely untapped resource to use for this purpose – the NRL’s former players.
Obviously we have been lucky enough with the FOGS to see first-hand what a difference can be made by former players wanting to put back in to the game after they have hung up the boots.
By keeping former players involved, they could help guide the next generation with the kind of direction that only comes from experience.
There are other factors involved as well, most specifically the need of modern player managers to take more responsibility for the overall well being of their clients.
But the game itself needs to start working harder to protect its key assets.