NRL can’t help itself and neither can we

Smart people usually have some awareness of the world around them. On a day when 2000 Americans died and 32,000 tested positive for the disease that killed them, on a day when the official number of global cases passed 1.5 million – leaving out untold unrecorded numbers in the developing world – rugby league announced it was starting again in seven weeks. Woo-hoo! On a day when the sacrifices Australians are making continued to pile up exponentially, the NRL declared that its own game-day sacrifices are coming to an end. Let’s get this party started! All on its own, league is creating a coronavirus-free world.

Each day, you hope to discover that rugby league is not actually like this, that it still has the brain you thought it had. Your hopes are raised when you see headlines of stories warning the NRL not to ‘trash its brand’ or ‘act irresponsibly’, but it turns out that its only concern is that the competition has an equitable number of rounds or that the measures to control a viral outbreak among players and staff can be controlled. About the real issue, there is no discussion.

Credit:Illustration: Simon Letch

The NRL’s plans are formulated by an ‘innovation’ committee with a name, Apollo, that suggests rocket science, but it’s more like Greek myth. Its fate is pre-determined.

Whatever ‘innovation’ takes place is confined within the committee’s brief, which is to find ‘innovative’ ways of restarting the competition in May, a full four months before the rest of us have been told we can expect our world to return to normal. Thinking truly outside the box – say, asking whether rugby league has a greater duty to the community than getting its income streams flowing again, or asking whether it is humanly decent to place sport on such a pedestal to its own self-regard – is too far outside. It’s not a box, it’s a hall of mirrors.

And then you look to the outside world to speak truth to league. Governments and health authorities are entering a particularly difficult time. They seem to have done a good job containing the virus, but this only taxes people’s patience more. Unrest is growing every day. The corona-sceptics are on the march. It was all exaggerated. People are getting restless and need persuasion, more than ever, to work together. But here’s rugby league, putting out a big noise: we can loosen up now! Is anyone going to control them? Up steps John Barilaro, the leader of the NSW National Party, informing us that rugby league is ‘the tonic we need’ to get us through the virus. And you thought the tonic was drinking hot water and swallowing malaria pills.

It’s genius PR, if the aim is to keep people talking about you. And if you think PR is a signifier of IQ, it just shows how smart league is.

So here comes rugby league, afloat in its bubble, engorged with its self-importance, looking after its own, breaking ranks with Australia and the world. When families can’t see each other for Easter, rugby league is celebrating the Easter miracle of once again making itself the news. It’s genius PR, if the aim is to keep people talking about you. And if you think PR is a signifier of IQ, it just shows how smart league is.

But what also appeals, from a lifetime of enjoying league, is its decency. After encountering league people over the years, you almost invariably come away with the feeling that you have met someone fundamentally decent. In fact, this decency sets league apart from so many other sports. League people are the salt of the earth. You know that that has to be a fantasy as well, but it’s your personal experience. Compared to other sports, league is replete with genuine, straight-talking, likeable humans. Not people who’ve got their heads so far up their fundaments that they don’t see, much less respect, what is going on in the world outside their bubble.

So, while you, the league fan, are fighting with your son to convince him why he can’t go and visit his girlfriend, league is back on. While you can’t celebrate your elderly widowed mother’s birthday with her, league is on. While you go outside in this horrible Australia where police question you for being outdoors and people stink-eye other people for stopping and talking to each other, league is on. While another million people catch a disease and tens of thousands die, league is back on.


But you know what? When the NRL starts again, on May 28 or whenever, you will have wrestled with your conscience over whether it is the right thing to sit down and watch this renegade sport, this pariah code, this arena of self-absorption. By then it will have all worn you down. You will give in, because you just want to feel good again, and league will make you feel good. Like a dumb animal, you’ll go towards the thing you can’t help loving, and you’ll celebrate it, because by then, who knows, you might desperately need something to celebrate. League will give you what you need, by giving itself what it needs.

You will watch it. And this is when you realise you were kidding yourself all along, you were the simple fool; and you will give up trying to convince your friends that you love league because it is an intelligent and decent game.


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