First, Cleary said those girls in that still shot, who were part of his extended family and bringing him in touch with his traditional culture, had only dropped by while waiting for an Uber (How many? Where to? Why?). They were literally only in his home long enough to take a photo. Then, oops, a video. Caught lying, Cleary admitted that his extended family had stayed a bit longer to connect him with his culture, tutoring him in the dark arts of TikTok.
But he was struggling: their real reason for visiting him was to care for his mental health. It was really no different from visiting your ailing grandad in his nursing home. Finally, Cleary admitted that all this social distancing and stuff was doing his head in, he just couldn’t take it any more.
Here he could have been the spokesman for a nation, but his bosses wanted him only to be the spokesman for a Nathan. Everyone, from Freddy Fittler to the Great and Dear Leader, thundered about how unacceptable this was, before accepting it. The league took a massive wind-up and slapped him with … a fine, most of it suspended. That great political thinker John Barilaro said these players should face long-term bans for putting themselves first and acting like normal laws don’t apply to them, before reaffirming his view that league comes first and normal laws don’t apply to it.
If it was only a matter of time before this happened, it’s now a matter of even less time before it happens again.
Chairman Pete, you sense, was itching to be a real strongman and scramble all signals coming out of the autonomous republic, or at least force all citizens to hand in their phones. Instead, with communications out of his control, if the Dear and Great Leader wants to understand why these things happen, he needs to hear what the players are hearing when he speaks. Here, courtesy of Google Translate, are some examples.
What he said: ‘We’ll start when we want, ahead of everyone else, because we shut down when we wanted.’
What they heard: ‘We’re different, we write our own rules.’
What he said: ‘The infection rate is going down, we’re very optimistic.’
What they heard: ‘This corona thing was a hoax. Here, read this email about the Big Pharma conspiracy.’
What he said: ‘We’re an industry.’
What they heard: ‘We provide an essential service.’
Without sport, TV networks have redirected their viewers to comedy and drama. Fortunately rugby league provides the total package.
What he said: ‘We have devised strict biosecurity measures.’
What they heard: ‘Someone else is looking after this, it’s not my problem.’
What he said: ‘Our main concern is for the mental health of our players.’
What they heard: ‘Tik Tok!’
The pattern is clear. When the Autonomous Republic of League Citizens has set itself apart, operating at a more exalted level than the rest of the community, who can blame young players for seeing themselves as exceptions? When the leadership takes such control of the coronavirus crisis that it seems also to steer the direction of the wind and the rising and setting of the sun, is it the players’ fault if they assume it has also taken over their personal responsibility? When the ‘mental health’ of rugby league players is elevated to a priority that overrides every other kind of health, what cashed-up young leaguie is not going to venture that his mental health is best served by shooting, fanging and drinking with his mates, or filling his living room with dancing nubiles? (And, given this is all in the service of mental health, is it tax deductible?)
Strongmen, and the dictatorships they lead, give great comfort, direction and assurance to their subjects. In exchange, all the subjects have to do is surrender their adulthood. In Pete they trust; so why would they ever need to grow up?
The softness of the punishments is a coded admission of complicity. The league cannot seriously discipline those players for behaving the same way as the league has acted. All they did was put their own needs first. They are, in every sense of the word, representatives of their game.
Malcolm Knox is a journalist, author and columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.