Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ban The Boofheads Not The Beer

The question of what Brett Stewart may or may not have done outside his apartment block after the Manly season launch will now be answered by the court. However the question of how both the club and the National Rugby League should deal with the matter is still being hotly debated. Should the player be suspended? Should he be fined or disciplined in any way pending the outcome of the court matter? Should the club carry the responsibility for serving alcohol at an official event? There are no simple answers to these questions, but the real question is why are we even having the debate?

Given the alarming frequency of incidents where high profile sports people are involved in some form of unseemly public conduct, whether or not it involves a criminal investigation, why are the administrators not better prepared? Shouldn’t there be a protocol in place which would determine the steps to be taken in the event that any player finds himself at the centre of such an incident? Wouldn’t it make sense to have a game plan already drawn up so that whatever circumstances might come to pass, the NRL and the club management teams can consult the guidelines and implement a consistent response which removes doubt and confusion?

There has been a great deal of debate over whether or not Stewart should play, whether there should be a blanket ban on alcohol during the season, and what should be the consequences if such a ban is breached. All of these questions are important questions, but more importantly they should already have been answered. There should have been a policy already developed and in place to automatically provide the answers to those questions. Whether or not that policy includes a ban on alcohol, or any of the other measures that have been proposed, is up to the NRL and the clubs to hammer out between them, but it is essential that such a policy is drafted so that in future there is no such debate, only clear and effective action.

Of course, the idea of imposing a blanket ban on alcohol is not really practical. It would be almost impossible to enforce, and it would penalize responsible people who have no problem with enjoying a quiet beer and staying out of trouble. A more practical approach would be, as some commentators have suggested, to ban the boofheads, not the beer. What this means is to have a code of conduct which sets standards of behavior, including sanctions against public drunkenness, and clearly defined consequences for breaches of the code whether or not those breaches involve alcohol.

There is also debate about whether or not Rugby League players should be considered to be role models. Obviously, they are just ordinary everyday people who happen to possess a particular talent, and that talent doesn’t necessarily make them better people. It just makes them famous. But that’s the problem. Being a role model isn’t something that someone chooses. It is thrust upon them by circumstances which place them in the public eye, and whether they like it or not their words and actions will be an influence on others. It is a responsibility which comes with the privilege of recognition. Not everyone is equipped to live up to that responsibility, and that is where the clubs and the administrators must provide support to their players by having in place the right framework to help guide their behavior and their response to the pressures of being in the limelight.

The truly great aspect of any sport is its capacity to build character and social responsibility at the same time that it builds physical skill and fitness. Rugby League is no different in that respect and has the potential to provide people at every level with a framework for living a useful and productive life by increasing an individual’s skills for teamwork, leadership, respect and tolerance. Unfortunately that opportunity is being squandered by the failure to address the excesses and temptations which undermine those qualities.

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