For the longest time the claim to fame of Peter V’Landys was that he kept the game going no matter what. Now the game may stop, and the fault lies squarely at his feet.
This claim was always dubious at best. V’Landys did little but his job. He made no personal sacrifices. Instead he asked others to bear the cost of his ambition. The players gave back wages to keep the game going. They gave up their home-lives. Some of them were even forced out of their country. They sacrificed their bodies, and some their careers. He took money the game had earned, and gave it to a broadcaster instead of calling their bluff for what it was. He cut money from the NRL’s centralised development program because he “needed” to reign in costs from an organisation that had just reported its first surplus in god-knows how long. All of this brought the game back a week before the rest, and yet his media sycophants still claim he saved the game, despite the list of sports felled by Covid being as empty as their rhetoric.
And now V’Landys must reach agreement rather than make demands, the game may stop. For those that don’t know, the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement have stalled, and the players are suggesting they may strike if basic demands may be met.
These demands are not unreasonable. They are seeking an improved minimum wage and improved hardship fund to protect the most vulnerable players. In recognition that most rugby league careers have a shorter lifespan than a gnat, they are seeking better post-career support, and medical coverage. For a sport that literally asks players to destroy their brains for our entertainment, this seems a minimum requirement to allow those of us that love it to sleep at night. In addition, the players are seeking protection by ensuring all aspects of their employment require their agreement (something that is common across collective agreements in Australia).
The players are also holding out until a similar agreement is reached for the NRLW competition. For a game born in 1895, and a league created in 1908, imbued with the principle that appropriate pay and protections need to be in place for the workers that sacrifice their bodies for it, this too seems like an absolute minimum. That the league has added four expansion teams, and wants to tout their credentials of equality, this is a critical step. That it is taking this long for this to be in place not only undermines their moral claims, but also the integrity of a competition. Even as we speak, clubs like the Raiders and the Cowboys are unable to finalise squads because they cannot sign people. NRLW players around the country are forced to continue to live with insecure work because the league is unable to reach agreement with the players. Choices will be made. Lives will move on, and the women’s game will suffer for it.
I know nothing more than what I can ascertain from the public discussion (it’s just my opinion, man) but it seems to me the league would probably prefer you blame the players for this mess. There is little to support that. The numbers are murky and disputed by both sides, but it seems that the demands of the union over the life of the agreement (around two per cent of total revenue, or about $60m in total) are minor. For a competition that happily gave more back to broadcasters this seems like a meagre claim. For a competition that that returned a surplus in 2021 of well beyond the yearly cost of this expanded deal, and should continue to grow over the coming years it’s a mild request, and one that presents little to no threat to the financial stability or sustainability of the game. The players association has noted this wouldn’t even take them back to what they were earning pre-pandemic, before they made the sacrifices that V’Landys is given credit for.
And now we wait. The action and rhetoric of the players association increased this week. When this occurs it is generally because an impasse has been met in negotiations. V’Landys may hope that the people, and the conservative rugby league media that would rather fawn over his supposed ‘brilliance’, will turn against the players and pressure them to accede to his position. This is a common tactic. When working people band together to look after each other, those in power seek to divide them, from each other, and from the rest of society, by demanding they be grateful for ‘having it so good’. They do it for the league players, but they do it to you and me too. Rarely is it true, and always is it designed to undermine your search for a fair share.
We saw something similar at Christmas when the league prematurely claimed agreement had been reached. It announced a cap figure (that hadn’t been in dispute), ignored the raft of outstanding issues, and claimed victory. The players association saw it as premature, and an attempt to paint this as a wage dispute and distract from the discussion about conditions. They also saw it as an attempt to undermine collective action, presumably to put those wanting a pay increase (which is near everyone) against a union trying to look after the long-term interests of the group. Thankfully the players called this bluff and stood strong and united. If only V’Landys had shown similar resolve in the past when the broadcasters came knocking.
This impasse will be resolved at some point, but the longer it goes, the more likely there is to have a substantial impact. It will mean the new NRLW teams find it harder to fill their squads as more women are forced to make choices between real employment and a theoretical rugby league career. It will mean increased animosity from the public to the game in general. The public discussion will become increasingly toxic, fostered by a media more intent on clicks and making their corporate bosses proud than understanding the complexity of the situation. And it could mean missed games, which would be catastrophic. That would mean the broadcasters would again come cap-in-hand to V’Landys, and we’ve seen how that plays out. And then the cost to the game would have been more than looking after the people that make it great.
It will be just another example of V’Landys’ administration. At best his ham-fisted interventions over the last few years have demonstrated the resilience of rugby league. Despite him fiddling with rules at the behest of broadcasters. Despite him handing over the game’s money to a ‘broadcasting partner’ that was busy bad-mouthing the league to all and sundry. Despite his lack of foresight and ambition when it comes to expansion, or development. Despite his preference to play code wars than negotiate with the players. Despite V’Landys, the game still thrives.
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