ARL painted into corner by NRL players lacking a moral compass

When the ARL Commission met late last year, they expressed a determination to take a firm stance in preventing violence against women, following a horror run of incidents that catapulted player behavior into the public eye.

Commission Chair Peter Beattie ordered an audit into the practices of clubs and the NRL in combating the problem. That report was tabled on Thursday and the Commission announced that any player charged with a serious criminal offence will be stood down from the NRL until their guilt or otherwise is determined by the judicial system.

It is a decision that has been forced on the game by the spate of incidents in the most recent offseason, involving players and, in particular, violence against women.

Beattie explained that anyone charged with a criminal offence which carries a maximum sentence of eleven years or greater will be stood down for as long as they remain subject to those charges.

"There will be a no fault stand down for players who are charged with serious criminal offences, above a certain line," Beattie said.

"Underneath that there are going to be charges that aren't of that level of severity and that will be within the discretion of the CEO to deal with."

When asked whether he thought this policy would bring about real changes in player behaviour, Beattie replied: "I do, because this is the first time we've actually had a rule that has real teeth. It's a rule that can bring about cultural change, it's a rule that says to everybody in the game that you've got to behave.

"At the end of it all we have to have a standard, we've got to have values and that's what this says - it sends a message.

"We have a great player group, but we have a tiny percent of people who don't behave in the way rugby league needs."

NRL CEO Todd Greenberg added: "This is no silver bullet, sanctioning is part of what we do, the game needs some cultural changes, no doubt about it, that's an ongoing discussion - that takes time."

Violence against women is an ugly societal problem which has increasingly received the public exposure and disdain it deserves. Rugby league has regrettably gained a disproportionate association through the well-publicised actions of a number of players. It is a stain on the game that has dire implications. Those in charge knew they needed to do so much more than shake their heads and voice their disapproval.

The Commission has now made it clear that if you cannot conduct yourself in a manner which enables you to avoid serious criminal charges, then there is no place for you in rugby league. If you can't set your own moral compass to meet the reasonable expectations of society, then the NRL will help you, by placing your career in jeopardy.

Recently retired legend of the game Billy Slater made a statement during the week that it was the responsibility of parents, not the NRL, to educate their children in the rights and wrongs of life.

His words struck a personal note, as I recalled the day when as a nine-year-old I shoved my seven-year-old sister to the ground during one of our many childhood squabbles. I will never forget my father grabbing me firmly by the shoulders, looking straight into my eyes and saying; "I don't care what she did, we do not hit girls! Do you understand? We never hit girls!" It's a message that has stuck with me my entire life and something I have done my best to pass on to my two sons. Physical violence against a woman is never acceptable.

The biggest flaw in Slater's logic is that not all parents are equal. There is no degree you need to complete to become a parent, there is no suitability test, there is no licencing. Literally anyone can bring a child into this world, with no instruction manual and often only their own upbringing to use as a guide.

A child growing up in an abusive environment may see that way of life as normal and take it with them into adulthood and parenthood.

Young men making a career in one of the toughest sports in the world are inherently physically tough. They thrive in a game which treasures brutality almost as much as skilfulness and speed. However, if these young men don't have the capacity to keep their aggressive instincts on the playing field, then it is up to the NRL to impose penalties which provide the greatest deterrent.

Greenberg touched on the fact that many rugby league players come from difficult upbringings.

"We should always be mindful that rugby league is a tough game, it's a great game, but a number of our players come from a long way behind, so the game has a strong duty of care to help them become great footballers, fitter, faster stronger," Greenberg said.

"But we also have a huge duty of care to help them become better people, better men, better husbands, better fathers and ultimately develop them into the type of people who can go back to their community after their career."

There will inevitably be grey areas to challenge what the ARL hopes is a black and white ruling. Manly star Dylan Walker is currently before the courts facing changes of assault against his partner, who will likely testify that she wasn't assaulted. Laws were changed some time back to allow the courts to prosecute a case of assault against a women, even when that woman refuses to press charges or testify against the accused. Physical assault within relationships can be complicated by emotional attachments and dependencies. The law was changed to protect women whether or not they believed they needed protection.

St George Illawarra Dragons forward Jack de Belin has entered a plea of not guilty to the serious charge of aggravated sexual assault. He strongly denies the charges and will fight to clear his name in court from April 17 - the season kicks off on March 14. He has become the first player to be stood down under these new rules and his club has already indicated that they will take legal action.

The problem is, that not everyone charged with a crime is guilty, and Beattie went to great lengths to stress that this rule in no way indicates a player's guilt. The term "no fault stand down" was coined to stress this point. The judicial system will be allowed to determine guilt, before any long term action is taken by the NRL against a player. This in itself raises several issues.

Firstly, the Commission is placing a lot of faith in law enforcement agencies continuing to only lay charges where there is a strong case against a player. Secondly, the Commission is subjecting the game to the notoriously slow judicial process. The courts are certainly not going to rush a case through just because a rugby league club needs one of their best players back.

In the best interests of a player who has not yet been found guilty of the charges against him, the ARL has assured that he will remain on full pay and will be able to continue training with his club.

He will not be able to play, because the game can't afford to let a player run around each week only for him to be convicted later of a serious crime. This stance had to be taken for the sake of the game's very existence. Players now know that their off-field behaviour will have direct and lasting consequences for their rugby league careers.

The Commission was left with no real alternative, despite the protests of the Rugby League Players Association. This change of policy is not only about placating the outraged hoards gathering at the gates, its about adding a stronger message that player behaviour has to improve. Whether these new rules will be enough to see a marked improvement is yet to be seen.

It can't be any clearer however, that rugby league has had enough, that things have to change for the better and the Commission is willing to take the hard line it feels will bring about that change.