Despite the best efforts of the National Rugby League and the birth of its million-dollar Christmas baby, the report Playing by the Rules, the male sports scandal season arrived bang on time.
The story is so familiar it barely needs retelling. A rugby league team goes on a pre-season tour to a NSW country town, its players are strictly counselled not to bring themselves and their team into disrepute, and a sizeable proportion of them proceeds to do just that.
The cast of characters may change, but the narrative and script are depressingly familiar. In 2003 and 2004, the Bulldogs took the pre-season trophy for boorish behaviour, but this year passed the meathead mantle to the Newcastle Knights. Instead of playing by the rules, they were deliriously trashed.
As the perpetrators stood before the cameras, heads bowed and hands defensively clamped over groins, their captain for the day and fellow miscreant stumbled over yet another unconvincing prepared statement of regret and resolve. Fines and a sacking followed, and criminal investigations of alleged sexual assault. Business as usual for a rugby league February.
This sorry tableau was precisely what the NRL set out to avoid after last year's Bulldogs, Melbourne Storm and State of Origin scandals (which were strongly echoed in Australian football's travails). It commissioned the University of Sydney's Playing by the Rules report to establish in detail the players' attitudes towards women, involving leading feminists and gender studies academics Catharine Lumby, Wendy McCarthy and Karen Willis.
The report, released on December 20, 2004, in good time for the new season, produced several key recommendations. These included educating players about their social and sexual conduct, promoting responsible consumption of alcohol and involving clubs at all levels in improving the position and treatment of women in rugby league.
Only a few weeks before the Knights' scandal erupted, elements of the report were implemented at an NRL rookies' camp, with workshops for young players about managing encounters with women. This was a sensitive, textbook intervention in the gender politics of the game. Its long-term effectiveness is not known but from the NRL's perspective its $1 million investment in reshaping player attitudes has yet to prevent the bad behaviour that makes league frontline news for all the wrong reasons.
This is not to suggest that the NRL and the Playing by the Rules researchers had anything but the best of intentions or were misguided in their approach. But it is an object (more accurately, abject) lesson in just how difficult it is to turn around long-entrenched attitudes and behavioural patterns that receive considerable sustenance from cultural currents in the wider society.
The NRL and its researchers have been grappling with deeply embedded practices and values in male contact sport that will take a supreme, sustained effort to dislodge. This homosocial world has traditionally treated women with suspicion and, commonly, contempt. Feminising influences are seen from within this group as signs of weakness and encroachments on male territory tolerated only for specific purposes. One of these is sexual pleasure, sometimes, as research and court evidence reveals, with scant attention to the little matter of informed consent.
The professionalisation of sport has added a new dimension to sport's power structures - wealth. Although there are wide disparities in the incomes of sportsmen, for a limited period at least they far exceed those of most sportswomen and workers with less glamorous occupations. Television, sponsorship and gate revenue has pumped huge sums of money into sport, and semi-professional sportsmen with second jobs have been replaced by full-timers with property portfolios.
In the process, sports clubs have been transformed from grassroots community facilities to multi-million-dollar operations. Among their prime assets are sports celebrities and considerable effort is expended on protecting them - not least from themselves. In fact, few of the Knights' players who indulged in the Bathurst binge were stars. They just acted as if they were and assumed that someone would clean up after them. This time they didn't or couldn't.
Hushing up player transgressions was, until recently, the usual procedure in rugby league and other leading sports, but pressures to improve corporate governance, and journalists' greater willingness to blow the whistle and women to allege assault, have made it more difficult to fix things up on the quiet.
Intersecting with the sports world is the flourishing "night-time economy" - the alcohol-based leisure complex lucratively founded on attracting large numbers of mainly young people to pub and club precincts, and encouraging them to consume copious quantities of intoxicating liquor. Many sportsmen are enthusiastic patrons of this after-dark world.
Celebrity, money, arrogance, alcohol, aggression, sexism and arrested development come together in elite male team sport with powerful, interlocking force. Administrators and players might parrot monotone mantras such as "respect", "responsibility" and "trust", and even genuinely believe them when they're sober. This latest and highly predictable sport scandal, however, starkly illustrates that programmed surface speech continues to disguise a deeper sporting malaise.