For 16 days, the National Rugby League inundated the public with new ads - "Power for Change" - an initiative that ran alongside a United Nations global drive to help curb violence against women. The global campaign runs every year from International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in November, to Human Rights Day in early December.
In that same time, young NRL star Dylan Walker was arrested and charged with common assault and assault occasioning actual bodily harm, in alleged incident that saw his fiancee suffer minor cuts to her shoulder, leg and feet. In that same time, former Dally M winner Jarryd Hayne faced court for the first time on aggravated sexual assault charges from a September incident. And in that same time, Matt Lodge was celebrated for his return season with the Brisbane Broncos and rewarded with a new two-year contract, despite NRL general advisor Catharine Lumby describing his New York rampage in 2015 as "among the most disturbing of the cases" she's ever reviewed. Lodge is now in the Emerging Blues squad, a pre-cursor to State of Origin selection.
Just recently, the Tigers' new recruit, Zane Musgrove, and Penrith halfback Liam Coleman were charged with numerous offences, including aggravated indecent assault, following a night out at the Coogee Bay hotel. At this stage, neither player has been stood down from his club. This all fell on the same weekend that Jack de Belin, and a lower grade player, were charged with sexual assault in company of a 19-year-old woman.
It could be seen as unfortunate, even ironic, that these latest incidents all fall within the time period of the NRL's campaign. Instead, it should be seen as a further depressing chapter in the hypocrisy that runs through "The Greatest Game of All".
These stories are hardly shocking to NRL fans. Indeed, for many, this news would have provoked a short head shake and a 'not again' response. If we look back only a few short years, some of rugby league's favourite sons have been charged with, and others convicted of, assault against women.
If the NRL are truly behind what they preach, if they're truly supportive of their White Ribbon days, their women in league rounds, why are they allowing players like Lodge to continue to play the game? Let's remind you that Lodge avoided jail in New York after he was originally charged with felony burglary causing injury, before later entering a guilty plea to a misdemeanour count of reckless assault following a home invasion so horrifying that a mother and child barricaded themselves in their bathroom while Lodge assaulted the father, and was arrested at gunpoint. He also stalked a German tourist and shouted "Do you think you're going to die? This is the night you're going to die". How is he even being considered a chance to play in State of Origin? Why have they defended his re-signing by the Brisbane Broncos as a second chance?
A second chance after the family was forced to leave their home of 20 years after the son became traumatised of hearing the doorbell ring? A second chance after, the victims claim, he failed to payback a cent of his $1.6 million compensation after two years? A second chance after it later came out that he'd previously pleaded guilty to one charge of common assault against his former girlfriend in 2015?
Surely, his second chance was not getting sent to prison in New York. His second chance was coming back to Australia with a plea bargain and agreement to undertake community service. How can the NRL talk of zero tolerance when it allows a player like Lodge to return to the game? Why have Musgrove, Coleman and de Belin not been stood down by their club as they face charges? And why are we - yes, we, the media - so quick to write redemption pieces? History shows us that across all sports, blind eyes are the easiest to be turned in the face of sporting success. The hypocrisy cannot continue. The media must collectively shine a light on the game's shame.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in three women will suffer violence at the hands of a current or former partner in their lifetime, while one in five men will fall victim to violence from a partner. Shockingly, these numbers escalate on State of Origin nights. According to the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, State of Origin nights see an increase in domestic assault by as much as 40 per cent. It's a staggering and shameful number.
In 2009, Greg Inglis was charged with assault in an incident with his now-wife, but was not convicted, instead he was ordered to attend a men's behaviour change program and donate $3,000 to a women's health service. Just six years later, the case mostly forgotten, he was on the front page of the Courier-Mail with the headline "RESPECT" after Queensland won the State of Origin series.
In that same year, Greg Bird was found guilty of assaulting his then-girlfriend by smashing a glass in her face. (The conviction was overturned on appeal a couple of years later.) Bird would spend six more years as a representative player for Australia and New South Wales.
In 2013, Ben Barba allegedly struck his partner and bloodied her face with the photographs appearing in the Daily Telegraph. He was eventually suspended indefinitely from the sport after he tested positive to cocaine in his system in 2016. He's now signed with the North Queensland Cowboys for the 2019 season following a stint in the UK.
Also in 2013, Blake Ferguson was convicted of the indecent assault of a woman in a nightclub. He's now enjoying his career with the Parramatta Eels, and is yet another player who is in the headlines this week as a reformed character. How is he still playing the game, let alone still considered one of the biggest stars of the game?
Last year, reports emerged that the former girlfriend of West Tigers' Tim Simona, Jaya Taki, felt forced into an abortion and was subjected to death threats. Simona was eventually de-registered by the NRL - for betting on NRL games. On Sunday, Taki took to Twitter to criticise the NRL integrity unit in response to a Sydney Morning Herald article. She says she approached the NRL with evidence she'd gone to the police about her former partner.
Pretty sure the @NRL integrity unit did absolutely nothing when I told them about how I had to go to the police about my former partner yet did plenty when I showed them evidence of his gambling. I disagree. The NRL is churning out fuckwits, they are part of the problem 100%— Jaya Leanne Taki (@JayaLeaneHealth) December 16, 2018
Last Monday, a news release landed from the governing body: "For the past 16 days, the NRL has utilised its voice and reach to encourage communities to take action to prevent violence as part of the global UN-led 16 days of activism against gender-based violence campaign... As a game and a community, we endeavour to create a standard of behaviour and culture around respect towards women that runs through our rugby league clubs ... Let's start the conversation."
They wanted to start the conversation, but perhaps it wasn't this conversation.
There are a number of great initiatives rolled out by the NRL and strong, committed people determined to bring change and lance the boil that afflicts the sport. In no way am I disparaging the NRL's decision to take part in the global initiative, especially as it pertains to an issue that affects so many people within Australia and around the world. But it all comes to naught if words and good deeds are allowed to drift off in the wind - if we allow the whitewashing of reputations and have selective amnesia just because the game believes 'he's good at footy'.
ESPN contacted the NRL for comment on this piece but received no response. However, the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) revealed last night it was undertaking an audit of how club leaders combat the issue, which will be presented in the new year.
Education doesn't appear to be working, and the culture hasn't changed. While some might call for player suspensions or other consequences short of banishment from the game -- stronger punishment than has currently been handed out by the NRL -- if the NRL is serious, they must make a stand and show there are dire consequences for serious off-field offences. If the NRL is serious, and Hayne is found guilty, his career must be over. If the NRL is serious and Walker or de Belin are found guilty, their careers must be over. If the NRL is serious, every player who is found guilty of assaulting a woman must lose the right to play the game that made them famous. Because actions and deeds matter, and playing sport at the highest level - becoming a role model and a spokesperson - is a privilege, not a right.
Only this week, Lumby called for harsher punishment for players convicted of sexual assault and assault against women. The league's gender advisor and former Canberra Raiders captain Alan Tongue believe it's time for player's to face life bans from the sport, while players facing criminal charges should not be on the field until they were cleared. The code has the best anti-gender violence program in the country, according to Lumby, and yet five players were charged with a wide range of assault charges within a week of each of each other. It's time for harsher punishment.
With privilege comes responsibility. For players, for administrators and for the media. All of us are complicit in allowing this situation to be repeated year after depressing year.
This stops now.