Cultural Comment

Rugby League – The Five Eighth Sign of the Apocalypse

Growing up in the Sydney of the 1980s, there was one game in winter to be watched and supported by people of the western suburbs – rugby league. NSWRL. The domain of hills, blankets, beer and Rex Mossop mangling the English language on the TV. Peter Sterling had hair, Warren Ryan at Canterbury was making a defensive phalanx to block any scoring by other teams. Fatty Vautin was some bloke from Queensland who played for the silver tails, but kept his extra special games for Origin. Wally Lewis was a player you never saw outside Origin. That was it. That was league. It was tribal, and everyone belonged to the rugby league tribe. Wear blue and white socks in the streets of Greystanes, and you were an outcast. Blue and Gold, son.

A great deal has happened to rugby league since those days – and most of it bad. Indeed, I think most of the annoying, disgraceful, shocking things that have been occurring to society can be traced to and routed through rugby league – through the way it is managed and promoted.

1. Gambling

The NRL have become synonymous with opposing the Wilkie / Xenophon poker machine reforms, helping to fund the Clubs Australia campaign, encouraging radio personalities such as the Grill Team to confront government ministers with their misrepresentations, going into local newspapers with stories about the reforms affecting the viability of their clubs. These same clubs place the absurd “You didn’t vote for a licence to punt” signs out the front, spelling out that the NRL clubs are in danger of closing. Channel 9, the broadcaster of league, has now actually said that opposing the poker machine reforms is their editorial line now, using Ray Warren and Phil Gould to state that view during a game.

While on the subject of Phil Gould, we now see and hear him doing political commentary to people down at Campbelltown RSL – apparently he is qualified to say that Julia Gillard is the “worst PM in our history”. Coaching football teams to premiership victories in the 1990s isn’t a qualification for anything much, except bellowing during league matches and getting a job with one of the most poker machine dependent clubs – Panthers. Conflict of interest much?

It is not just the poker machine reforms about which the game of rugby league has little dignity. It is during broadcasts of the game that we see the most advertising of gambling services – odds being discussed frequently, representatives of gambling companies featured during broadcasts, during panel shows. It is the game that puts gambling front and centre of its operations, to the extent of having the Penrith stadium being sponsored by one of these companies.

League didn’t start gambling, nor is responsible for problem gambling by itself, the relationship it has with gambling shows how in our society large organisations are unwilling to make sacrifices for the greater good, instead favouring more dollars, no matter where they come from.

2. News Limited

Those who read my blog and tweets will know of my general dislike of News Limited and its influence over our media landscape, political scene and culture. News Limited should be a media company that makes money from covering things like politics, sport and culture. They have, whether through company decisions or those of individuals, however, frequently crossed the line into interfering in politics, the media and sport is managed and conducted, through mendacity, misrepresentation and manipulation. Rugby League stands as a testament to that callous disregard for what has been.

There has been much said about Super League and the pain it caused the game. It essentially started out from Brisbane, where the part owners of the Brisbane Broncos – News Limited – and the Broncos combined to start a new Super League, which would be centred around wrestling control of league away from Kerry Packer and the ARL. This account is one of the more colourful versions of the origins of the deal. The advent of the rebel league, caused a fight that has caused lasting, damaging pain to the game – not least of which was the filleting of foundation club Souths – and ensured News Limited has a far bigger stake in League than it did in the 1990s. That has seen Foxtel gain a large footing in the game, ensuring that no Saturday games are broadcast on FTA TV as well as the continuing saga that has been the Melbourne Storm – still on the News Limited drip.

News Limited makes money from league – that’s not the bad thing. The influence News Limited casts over league and the way it is run – and the callous way it treats fans – provides another example of which in our society, News Limited is one of our darker bastions of corporate amorality.

3. Ray Hadley and Alan Jones

Alan Jones was a relatively popular radio host in the 1980s, after his stint as Manly, then Australian rugby union coach. His deep, lasting a profound place as the “people’s champion” started, however, after his stint as the coach of Balmain in rugby league. That gave him the credibility of being someone who “understood” the “little people” because rugby league is a working class game and Balmain was as working class as clubs came. No matter that Jones himself is a patrician chameleon who has successfully recast himself as a number of characters. League gave Jones the real push he needed into credibility.

The same can be said for his acolyte, Ray Hadley. Hadley’s life as an auctioneer then football caller has provided him a platform for his nasty shouty bile that infests the radio waves each morning. That the Liberal Party’s operatives (such as Tommy Tudehope) celebrate the bizarre ramblings of Hadley is testament to just how low the state of political discourse has come in these past few years. But it was league that gave Hadley this undeserved platform.

And, for fans of rugby union, it was rugby league that gave you Hadley for that ridiculous bingo-style call of the World Cup semi – “No. 14 is now passing it to No. 11”. And, apparently, for every single rugby test broadcast on Channel 9 for as long as they have the rights. Lucky you. Rugby League has given union lovers so many great things – Channel 9, for one, who bought the rights probably as to stifle the chance for the union to compete with rugby league. Also, league gave you Wendell Sailor and Timana Tahu.

4. Encouraging Aggression and Violence

Ask any teenage boy in Sydney what they look for on Youtube, and this will be one of the most popular – rugby league’s biggest hits

Or, this, the fights

It’s rarely the skilful plays. The advertising of league on Channel 9 also plays up the big hit angle, as well as wistful and energetic nostalgia for the days when fighting was commonplace. The most notorious example of this was Matthew Johns’ creation of Reg Reagan for the Footy Show (note the homophobic reference to Ian Roberts’ coming out):

While rugby league doesn’t cause aggression and violence in the community – and clubs like Penrith have run campaigns discouraging violence against women – it certainly shows contemporary attitudes towards violence and the unwillingness of the NRL to control that image it still emits demonstrates a tacit support for celebrating aggression and violence.

5. Bogans

I tweeted during the State of Origin that league had become a bogan sport and was roundly condemned for suggesting such a thing. My point was that if you look at the way league is promoted and covered on Channel 9, as well as the advertisers who pay for the time, league is fairly and squarely pitched at the cashed up bogan, ready to outlay those bogan bucks. The loud Nickelback and Kings of Leon music, the repetitions of thumps and hits, the ads for Bundy Rum, VB and Commodore V8 SS Utes communicate perfectly which market at which the game is aimed. The over dramatised pretentious openings with Phil Gould also demonstrate a desire for Channel 9 to emulate the stylings of the film director most beloved of bogans, Michael Bay. It’s a far cry from the expert, low key coverage of David Morrow and Warren Ryan. It’s more like Roy and HG without the irony or humour.

Then there is the continuing kid gloves treatment of rugby league’s bogan-in-chief, Todd Carney – a figure not unlike Ben Cousins and Brendan Fevola.

His selfish, uncaring, drunken ways have continued to be indulged in rugby league because of his skill. Now, reports have him going to the Gold Coast or Cronulla. No surprises there.

Rugby League by no means created the bogan, nor is the only sport that contains them or is promoted to them. However, it is the sport that shows its bogan pride in full, living colour.

Rugby League. Showing us how society can take a proud sporting institution and rot it from the inside. A definite sign that society is not what it used to be – indeed, perhaps, a sign of the apocalypse. Though, for that to be the case, they would need to have evidence of reptiles taking over the game…

By prestontowers

I had been a teacher observing politics and the media from the outside for some time. I became a political insider, didn't like it much, and hightailed it back to watching it again. And still loving teaching.

2 replies on “Rugby League – The Five Eighth Sign of the Apocalypse”

I love rugby league. I live and breathe it in winter. The misrepresentation by the clubs of the pokies precommitment is disgraceful. I hope that the new tv deal will mean that RL is less dependent on gambling tie-ups for funding. The constant gambling propaganda sickens me.
News Ltd has turned my beloved sport into a tv program. I loathe them for it (and for numerous other reasons). I refuse to subscribe to Foxtel, on principle. This hurts during the footy season.
Alan Jones was a disaster for Balmain and almost destroyed the Wallabies that he coached with his ‘pick-and-stick’ favouritism of certain players (who wre mostlry reluctant objects of his affection). I know nothing of Ray Hadley, except his abysmal calls of the RWC recently.
The situation is not so much ‘society’ as corporatism, of the kind that the ‘OccupyX’ groups are protesting.
Thank you Preston. now I know I’m not alone

Let’s get the disagreement out of the way. League is a contact sport hence I’m not sure what the problem is with a collection of big hits. All are legal and all are part of the game. It is what many fans and myself love and I don’t see any contradiction between controlled aggression as part of the sport and anti-violence initiative. I have not patience with illegal hits which are (albeit inconsistently) policed. But I grew up in the 80s just as the wild days of league were being quashed. The game is far cleaner now than it was back then let alone the 70s. The NRL have done a good job of cleaning up the game but still allowing controlled aggression.

The gambling is a big worry. I like a punt but I’d bet at the most $100 over a season on the league (there is my traditional bet every year on Parra to win the comp). But the amount of advertising is just shocking and campaign against pokie reforms is just disgusting. Running a club is a tough business but the fact they are so reliant on pokies is just a poor and immoral business model. I’ve started thinking about a post on why league fans should be for the poke reforms.

Don’t care about Hadley and Nine losing the rights would be a boon to the game. Fox Sports actually have the best group of commentators going around at the moment. I’ve got plenty of time for David Morrow but I do think the game is leaving Warren Ryan behind.

As for Carney, the league should have done more for him. They’ve let him drift. I hope I’m wrong but his time at Cronulla will match his time at the other clubs. Though I do hear that Northies are removing all their pokies in anticipation of Carney’s arrival. Just won’t need them anymore to turn a profit.

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