“I am frustrated,” Greenberg told the assembled media with some feeling. “I get frustrated because there are so many good stories to be told. I’ve flown to Brisbane today to promote what is one of the great innovations in rugby league. Last year we bought 130,000 fans to one stadium over one weekend, we did something that no other sport in this country has done. Nobody has asked me a question about it. I’m frustrated because I want to talk about the good things in rugby league, I want to talk about the great things our players do off the field. But I’m a realist and I know that if there’s a poor decision, I have to be accountable to that and talk about that. One bad thing creates headlines. I understand that.”
What the league generally doesn’t seem to understand is how to stop the atrocities which have gone through a particularly bad patch lately. Last summer’s batch of “off-field incidents” was the worst on record with everything from alleged sexual assaults to the usual bouts of public drunkenness and brawling. This off-season we have already had more than a handful of assaults and the aforementioned stabbing allegation.
To counter it, the NRL has tried everything from heavy fines, to suspensions or “stand downs”, to forming an integrity unit to conduct its own investigations and even “education classes”.
(In reference to the last one, I remember comedian Dave Hughes endorsing the whole idea of re-educating rugby league players before adding, “here’s how it should go: Don’t rape anyone … class dismissed”.)
Might I suggest, however, another approach?
You will recall how a couple of decades ago the league changed its entire approach to brawling, after identifying that the key culprit in turning a fight into a brawl was the “third man in”. It was one thing for two blokes to be throwing punches at each other, but what turned into a brawl was when the third man charged in and started throwing punches of his own. By changing the rules so that the first one marched was the third man, the whole rugby league culture – you heard me – was changed and wild brawls started to diminish. Blokes started to think twice about charging in, and things calmed.
I think the league needs to invite the third man back, off the field, and give him a mission – save your mate. For if there is a relatively common thread in so many of the atrocities it is league players out and about on the squirt when one starts to lose control and either begins harassing women or getting stroppy with a bloke – both of which all too frequently end in desperate unhappiness for all concerned.
Bingo! Call in the third man!
You are there. You get it. You are less pissed than your mate. You can see things are starting to get out of hand. We need a small light to go on over your head. What was that thing they told me again? I remember!
THIRD MAN IN! That’s me. My job is to get my mate, get him to keep his hands to himself, un-bunch his fists and get him into a taxi. Yes, he might then get stroppy at me, but he will understand when he’s sober again. Remember that thing the NRL hammered us on, about the virtues of being the third man in? About how it was my job, as your mate, to stop you going too far with women, stop you getting into blues with bouncers and blokes at the bar? Well, that’s why I did what I did, just as you will do it for me! And look at the results? Do you note that you woke up in your own bed this morning, and not in a police cell? That your name is not plastered all over the papers? That you’re not in a teary phone-call with your partner about what you’ve done, and how sorry you are? That Todd Greenberg hasn’t blown a gasket on television as everyone shouts your name.
Friends, this is the way it has worked unofficially since time immemorial.
I have done it several times with footballing mates, both in Australia and more particularly France, and it was once done for me when I foolishly fancied my chances against a couple of threatening and abusive bouncers.
The point is the time has come to make the NRL players understand that the league culture now has an expectation that as the third man in, your job is to stop the trouble before it starts. It is NOT to go at the second man, but get the first man, your mate, away from the whole imbroglio and stop trouble before it starts.
Peter FitzSimons is a journalist and columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald.