For millions of Australians, rugby league is a beloved fixture of everyday life. In the off-season, fans discuss player signings, the chances for the year ahead. The season starts with great anticipation and each game is eagerly anticipated and scrutinised. Notwithstanding some dubious off-field behaviour, players are idols and role models for thousands of young people.
The standing in which the NRL and its players are held by its fans should have been the overriding factor for the NRL when considering whether their season should continue in face of the coronavirus outbreak. On Monday afternoon, the NRL finally succumbed to the inevitable and suspended its season. It will be a sign to all fans how seriously this pandemic should be taken.
Despite the shutting down of restaurants, casinos and the AFL postponing games until at least the end of May, the NRL had held on until the last possible moment, still intent on playing through the coronavirus epidemic. Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys had said it was important to keep people’s spirits up. “You have got to have some things to make life a little more normal,” he said.
Yet the trouble is that playing football, even in empty stadiums, was sending a terrible public health message. Tackling and high-fiving after tries told people it is acceptable not to social distance. It was the same careless and irresponsible attitude seen on Bondi Beach at the weekend. Mr V’landys had unfortunately just not read the room. Washing footballs in antiseptic or having reserve players sit two metres apart on the sidelines only made the double-standard more apparent.
Suspending the season will, of course, cost the NRL a lot of money. It is not as flush with cash as the AFL, nor does it have assets such as a stadium it can leverage to keep payments to players going. It could also trigger financial disputes with the broadcast rights-holders. These include Nine Entertainment, owner of the Herald.