Don’t Call It A Comeback

Don’t call it a comeback

I’ve been here for years

I’m rocking my peers

Puttin’ suckers in fear…

How I would have written the NRL’s press release about aiming for May 28. Also “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J before he was an actor.

Rugby league is coming back.

Or at least it’s aiming to. Like every other sport in the world it’s been itching to get some games on the field to keep themselves solvent. This puts it in the same boat as the AFL, Rugby Union and even in a better position than Cricket Australia, who is reportedly in all kinds of bother despite not having lost any cricket.

Around the world countries in more precarious positions than Australia are seeing the sporting competitions returning. La Liga and Serie A are aiming to comeback soon. Major League Baseball is hoping to be back even before rugby league, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the NFL starts its season on its normal opening date with crowds in tow, though I don’t think that’s a very smart idea.

Rugby league is very much in the pack of this movement, which makes it interesting that there has been so much focus in the media, both positive and negative about this starting date. In the sycophantic Sydney rugby league press, ALRC chairman Peter V’Landys is being painted as a hero for bringing the people’s game back. In the non-rugby league areas of Australia there has been sneering and hooting at the NRL’s proposed return. Peter Fitzsimmons criticised rugby league for not having solved a problem it was still addressing. Geoff Lemon wondered if rugby league should be trying to comeback and whether it should be more like the AFL – also trying to come back as soon as possible.

Of course, for most, if the AFL or Super Rugby was coming back first these criticisms would have been shelved in favour wondering why the NRL was so poorly run it wasn’t coming back. When Cricket Australia approaches the Commonwealth to allow countries from a range of different nations an exemption to come to Australia for the T20 World Cup it’s seen as a necessary and prudent course of action. When the NRL seeks an exemption from Queensland the media turns it into evidence that rugby league criminally hasn’t got all the answers yet, as if sport (or anything) will return in 2020 with the same precision and smooth existence as it did before the virus. When rugby league talks about islands and bubbles it’s a joke; when the AFL pitches Darwin as a potential hub for AFL it barely raises a mention. An AFL player brazenly flaunts social distancing rules, get drunk, drives and has an accident and the wagons circle. Josh Addo-Carr and Latrell Mitchell break the rules and you won’t hear the end of it. Sometimes you can’t win.

Often the NRL doesn’t help itself. To paraphrase Jason NRL, (seriously, read this) maybe if they’d been a bit of a smaller target they wouldn’t have drawn the spotlight. It hasn’t helped that you’ve had glorified idiots like Brad Fittler going into battle against the State of Queensland for doing their duty and ensuring the safety of their people as a first priority. The Peanut King, Paul Kent, got into it with progressive Australia’s most embarrassing voice (cop that Phillip Adams) Peter Fitzsimmons, the result an embarrassing tie in which both proved without doubt they have more room in the public discourse than either needs or deserves.

Peter V’Landys has adopted a short-term focus on getting the game back on TV. For him, and many, it is all that matters for the ongoing commercial viability of the sport. He should be commended for the success he’s made to that end, such as reaching an agreement with the NSW government. V’Landys has presented the return of rugby league with more certitude than he can promise though. We are the children of Covid-19 after all.

This short term focus and certitude about the return of the game has put in place several potential time bombs.

It seems that he’s used it as an impetus to push reticent stakeholders in the game to make decisions. The most notable example is the Rugby League Players’ Association, which is being asked to risk its reputation with the players in order to give the game the green light, without any real time or effort put into genuine consultation with them, and through them the players. They are still seeking clarification around a range of matters, and it seems to me that issues of safety, insurance and money need to be resolved before a game can be played. Pushing the players into games before they are ready or willing will only risk their long term of the leadership of the Players’ Association and the ALRC.

It has also created problems in the short-term, with Channel 9 at loggerheads with decency and humanity as well as Fox Sports and the NRL over the length of the season, emboldened by the fact it’s taken down one CEO. Nine boss Hugh Marks seems willing to sit on his hands, going as far to say Nine won’t pay for games delivered after October 4 (full disclosure – that was reported by Michael Chammas as a source close to “a broadcaster” but only one broadcaster is desperate for games to stop).

V’Landys has also created a range of long-term issues with his handling of Todd Greenberg’s departure and through that, the relationship with Channel 9. From the outside it seems he used the criticisms from Channel 9 as a Trojan horse in his reported move against Todd Greenberg. His tacit endorsement of frankly reprehensible comments from Marks meant that in subsequent discussions with Nine he’s been arguing from a position of admitted weakness. Nine blamed the game, V’Landys allowed that to go unchallenged because it suited him in the short-term, and it’s already come back to bite him.

This seems to have emboldened Channel 9, seeing them push for a shorter season than anyone other than them wants. V’Landys now has an additional variable; instead of just trying to work out how many games he can feasibly fit in before things get too hot, he has to also peace-keep between his broadcasters, one seeking as many games as possible, the other intent on watching the world burn (figuratively Hugh. Calm down). All this has got V’Landys is a extended broadcast deal at less money, the opportunity costs from which will likely eat up what financial gains come from cobbling together a season.

This heavy-handed approach has sat uncomfortably with a Trumpian tendency to broadcast every brain-fart. NRL Island was a meme longer than it was ever a realistic possibility. Origin has been talked about at the beginning, middle and end of the current season, in front of no-one, and in front a crowd of self-isolated Origin fanatics. There’s been talk of points from previous rounds not counting, mostly because the Roosters are a bit sour, which came back even after V’Landys ruled it out, which isn’t his fault but is indicative of the tendency to talk too loud about every step.

Intriguingly these real criticisms aren’t in the heart or detail of most critiques of league’s return. Instead outsiders focus on the usual punching down, hitting a familiar foe with the same tired old tropes they have for decades. It’s not new, it’s not interesting and it stinks of finding something to talk about when there’s nothing else going. It is a convenient opportunity to express their resentment of rugby league and if I’m being ungenerous, some old fashioned race and class-based fear of the working class not fitting in to the norms the bourgeoisie ascribes to them. Critiques revolve around things like “the right time” and “a good look” – the only look that matters being the gaze downwards. I’ve heard rugby league players called “thugs” more than once on social media by smarter people than me. It’s enough to make you weep.

Like it has for years, rugby league is finding a way, at least as much as anyone else is. It’s not perfect, and more than once people’s noses will be put out of joint – including mine. When you look close there’s plenty to question, but the loudest voices rarely look that close.

So instead of real questions being asked about what the competition is planning, and whether it is safe, smart or sustainable, we are treated to the usual substandard and superficial takes from people who can’t be bothered to look closer. We deserve better.

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