Words || Erin Christie
Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence.
The National Rugby League is the soundtrack of my childhood. As a kid I was more familiar with the sound of commentators shouting than any Wiggles soundtrack. Ray Hadley chatted more on our trips up the coast than either of my parents, and from a very young age, I was accepting of his presence in my life, although tuning his voice out became easier over time.
In fact, I got so good at ignoring this sport, and every aspect of commentary surrounding it, it came as a rude shock in my late teens that it was steeped in scandal. Drugs, abuse and assault seemed to run rampant by the time I’d learned to pay attention to the news. Was everyone as good at ignoring this side of the sport as I was?
Professor of Media at Macquarie, Catharine Lumby, has many roles. One of these is as a pro-bono adviser to the National Rugby League on cultural change and education programs. I asked about her work with the NRL, keeping in mind the way it is ingrained into the lives of so many Australians.
“There was an alleged group rape, a gang rape, of a woman in Coffs Harbour in 2004,” Lumby explained. I’ll admit, at first I was mentally questioning which alleged group rape this was – there have been a few within the sport. However, they seemed to have inspired change. After investigating “a whole cultural map of what was happening off the field,” Lumby joined the NRL to conduct ethics-based education.
“It does not involve going in and lecturing at a group of guys. It involves getting them into a conversation about scenarios, hypotheticals which have ethical grey areas as well as clear areas of illegality. And it gets them to then come up with responses to questions, to those scenarios, and engage them in reflection about the consequences of certain behaviours, not just for themselves, but for others.”
These programs have seen a decline in instances of violent behaviour from players, leading to my strong belief they should be delivered everywhere – in businesses, schools, universities.
However, the players will always have their defenders when they do fuck up. Lumby spoke on the excuses she hears made for the young men around her: “‘oh, you know, the problem with these guys is that they get really drunk.’ Yeah, well, you can put a lot of alcohol in some people and they’re not going to turn around and assault anyone,” Lumby asserted. “People say, ‘Because it’s a working-class sport, they’re young guys who are animals on the field, so they’re going to be animals off the field’. I’m sorry, but look at what’s happening to elite university colleges … it’s not confined to a working-class, body-contact sport.”
When asked about these defenders, Lumby assured me that fans like this will always exist. However, I truly think they do nothing to discredit or alter her work within the league. “I’m with the NRL because so many young guys … look up to these guys as role models. I would prefer to be working in a male-dominated culture and working with them, than standing outside and just critiquing it.”
Change is slow, and almost always must occur from the inside. The hyper-masculine space that is the National Rugby League makes this a slow and, I’m assuming, an often arduous process. However, it is comforting to know that experts such as Dr Lumby have stepped inside the boys club to slowly but surely enact change. One day, maybe, tuning out this sport and these people will no longer be necessary.