Rugby League

A fortnight ago a rugby league player was lifted in a tackle and at the same time he tucked his head in. The result of this combination of movements is a broken neck between the fourth and fifth vertabrae. He may be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life, maybe only for months. The rugby league community has, with some exceptions I found surprising1, passed it off as a freak accident. It was not a freak accident. It was an entirely forseeable accident. It was a result with a very low chance of occuring, but not no chance of happening: repeat an action often enough and the low-chance events eventually happen.

I first started watching rugby league in the mid-eighties. 1985 or 86, I guess, although it could have been 1984. Whatever year it was, it was the State of Origin games I started watching. I had no idea what State of Origin actually was, but a classmate had announced he was going, and I’d probably asked my Dad about them. Or maybe I just sat down and watched them because Dad and our neighbour were watching it. I forget the exact circumstances, it was more than quarter of a century ago. This was an era of some pretty rough play, albeit nowhere near as rough as mid-century games.

I’d seen games of rugby league before; my Nonna was a keen Wests supporter - Brisbane Wests that is - and I had been to a few games with her. I wouldn’t say I had watched them though, not appreciated what was going on. About all I got from those games was tribalism. She cheered for Wests and didn’t like Brisbane Easts, so I liked red and black teams and didn’t like black and orange teams. Whoops, sorry. Black and gold :-P 2 She gave a cousin and I NSWRL themed jumpers one year, he got Rabbitohs colours and I got, with many apologies, Balmain. Black and gold.

So I have history. I’ve watched every origin series since that not-quite-remembered year, even the games when it was very, very hard to watch as a Queensland supporter. Game 3 of 2000, I am looking at you. I will never not hate Bryan Fletcher for his “hand grenade” post-try celebration. The tribal attachment to Queensland ebbs and flows. It’s faintest when knowledge of Clive Palmer, or Campbell Newman, or Bob Katter bubbles up from the tar pit. Three nights a year it roars to life like a lit up Pratt & Whitney J58-P4 clad in a jersey that can never be washed, because it would be bad luck.

I think this year though, Origin may end up the only games I watch. I think I am done with rugby league. It’s been building for awhile, a half dozen years since I first started becoming jaundiced when it started becoming obvious just how damaging a career in the American football can be. It prompted me to take a long hard look at this sport I was following. I didn’t like what I saw.

It’s a thuggish game, hence that sneering monikor from the AFL states: thugby. That section of the league community that like the violence prefer to call it “a collision sport”. And it is, it is more than a contact sport, it is a sport of players deliberately colliding with other players seeking to shock and cause pain. It is a game in which large men in the attacking side will, as a tactic, serially seek out the smaller players in the opposition, the ones on the field for their skill rather than their size, in order to wear them out and reduce their ability to practice that skill 3. It is a game when those large men will charge at a kicking player seeking to hit them while they are exposed and unbraced for collision.

There has been progress over the decades to improve safety. The head has been been made increasingly off-limits, making even careless strikes illegal. It’s illegal to use the feet to prevent the ball being put down, it’s illegal to attack the legs of a kicker, or hit them late. These have been accepted fairly widely, although there are still complaints made about head high rulings. Shoulder chargers were made illegal after a number of hits to the head and a number of individuals complain and complain about it, players, coaches, and media. New concussion rules are in place and one high profile coach complained that it was too far, suggesting there was an hysteria. There was an outcry when it was made a offense punishable by being sent from the field for punching someone. Punching, not accidentally striking while tackling, but striking out with a closed fist to punch. Banning this was protested as turning the game into touch football.

There’s hysteria, but it’s not from the community trying to reduce thuggish violence.

People get injuries all the time in the sport. Broken bones, ruptured tendons and ligaments, muscle tears. It’s a collision sport and the inevitable consequence of large men trying to hurt other men is that there will be injuries. I’ve been leery about this business that feeds off young men risking their post-career health. It would be absurd to compare this to a blood sport, because no one is intending to permanently maim anyone. But they do act in a manner that recklessly puts themselves and others in danger of that. And the sport’s ruling body is two-faced on the issue. On the one hand managing the public reaction by reducing the more blatant risks, on the other promoting the State Of Origin with television ads highlighting the kinetic violence. There is a traceable history in the promotional material for State of Origin matches that the sport’s ruling body has to keep hiding away from public view because of what it says about the sport, the risks in playing, and how much the business of rugby league relies on the thug element.

For example:

1987 Promotional Poster for Long Beach Rugby League game

The tackle shown, an out-and-out speak tackle, was illegal in 1987 when this posted was created. It would have resulted in a four match suspension. And yet the ruling body used this photo from a lower level game and used it to promote a one off game of rugby league, played in Long Beach, to the Americans. Roy Masters says that nowadays this poster is hidden away from public view because the NRL is a little ashamed, or at least aware what a PR disaster it is. Just dwell on that penalty. Four matches. What do you think the odds are of crippling injury from that spear tackle? Greater than a tenth of a percent? And for that, a four match ban? The tackler most responsible for making a player a cripple a fortnight ago got a seven week ban. This has been criticised as excessive.4

I just don’t think this game has a sound ethical basis left.

  1. Roy Masters and Phil Gould. The chances of me agreeing with either of those are vanishingly small, but as I am about to say, long odds eventually come in. But before we start giving each other handjobs, Phil Gould just wants to return to an age where a strike to the head was ok if it was “accidental”, to when men where men, and the air was gold with perfumed greatness.

  2. In a completely non-ironic development - seriously, it’s not, its just coincidence - the team I follow now is Wests and they wear black and oran…gold.

  3. Candor forces me to admit I was gleeful to see that tactic against James Maloney in the second game of the 2013 Origin series. Shame on me.

  4. From a certain point of view, the criticism is warranted. After all, plenty of other players have been lifted in much the same manner without similar penalty. I tend to think they shouldn’t have loaded extra weeks on, but started from a fresh slate. Any lifting at all gets a week ban, and it gets worse for the lifter from there.

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