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Sledgehammers and footynuts

By Alex Perrottet - posted Tuesday, 19 May 2009

What happens when a sledgehammer hits the back of a head? Australian tort law follows the “eggshell skull” principle - you take your victim as you find them. But there is no need to worry if the head belongs to NRL players and clubs. Sometimes you feel for the sledgehammer.

Disclaimer: this is not an attack on Rugby League - I love it and remain a big fan of my team.

However, the NRL’s problem is the same problem that plenty of mums, dads, teachers and coaches are facing these days. What is acceptable and what’s not? The basis for moral norms has shifted so much in recent decades that no one seems to know just where we stand in what is euphemistically phrased a “progressive” sexual society.


You’d think that one would have to drink a fair bit to silence the moral qualms before stripping down and participating in group sex. But these days it’s only inhibitions that get in the way, and one or two drinks wears them off completely. Most of the clothes are missing from the start anyway, and the idea of acceptable moral behaviour has long since evaporated into hazy and confused notions of right and wrong.

As an administrator of a university residence, I see many young students arriving at university set to forge their identity in a world where they have little or no guidance about moral behaviour. Many come fresh from high school, remarkably confident about doing what they feel is right before considering what effect their actions may have on others. In typical postmodern hypocrisy, the highest law is that “your laws are not necessarily my laws”.

Whether or not “Clare” was a “willing participant” in that situation, it was wrong. It was not good for her, or for the men involved. It was objectively wrong for all. If we treat others as instruments of pleasure, we separate sex from the responsibility and commitment that should go with it. When sex and people are used as toys, people are left burnt, jaded and later down the track, they feel abused and depressed.

Increasingly sexualised images fed to young people also feeds a growing sexual desire that at some stage will cause naïve, young and intoxicated individuals to try something more, something daring. Something that will later cause great pain and embarrassment to several parties. The thin line between consent and rape has haunted the NRL before. Where do we think deviant sexual criminals emerge from? Believe me, they aren’t born like that.

For all the sexperts, the therapists and university researchers, it seems people love to report on what promiscuous teens get up to, rather than discussing ways to help young people behave better. There are fewer and fewer guidelines given to children about what is on and what isn’t. We are happy to capitulate to changing norms and to leave kids to figure it out themselves.

Last year a box arrived at my college, containing pamphlets from New South Wales Health: “Drug Safety: Guide to a better night”. Not once did it say that taking drugs was wrong. Instead, it gave plenty of ideas of how to do it safely. We tend to send the same message to teens about sex - we know you’re doing it; here’s how to do it safely. The message is flawed. Unless NSW Health has a guide on how to erase past mistakes, I suggest the government, parents and schools attempt to send a stronger message. And don’t think that the younger generation are not going to listen to you.


When Andy Friend was appointed coach of the ACT Brumbies he said, "I'm a big believer in values. I want to install some key values in the group … We want to be better rugby players obviously, but we want to be better people." It’s this sort of attitude that is needed by club administrators if football is going to be a positive influence on our growing children.

It’s true that there are a lot of pressures on rugby league players and they are held to account for every indiscretion. But that’s what being a professional is about. As soon as you become a professional, you are accountable to whoever is paying you, and the industry body. Employers have a right to demand a decent level of behaviour. If rugby league players need training in moral behaviour, they should be supplied with it. We can no longer assume that all players have it. For those that don’t, it’s of no use putting it in their contract. It needs to be taught by strong and upright coaches and administrators. Perhaps it should be in the contracts of these employees to ensure the promotion of basic moral norms is achieved at the club level.

But when all is said and done, we simply need strong leaders to stand up and make the big calls, rather than whimping out because “everyone’s doing it”.

Phil Gould recently said these events will always end in tears. He is right. But you can’t promote a culture of crudity and promiscuity that degrades people with jokes and innuendo, and then come down heavy on offenders when something like this comes to light. We can all be better and we can encourage this through simple media outlets such as the Footy Show. The bottom line is that we can and should help our kids more; to show them there are plenty of healthier ways to have fun.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got,” says rugby league coach Wayne Bennett, quoting Australian netballer Vicki Wilson. “I liked that one so much, I took it to the players, reminding a few I’d been a little tough on them lately, that they have to change, because if they don’t, they’ll never get better, never reach the heights I believe they can.” This is not just from a man of moral integrity. He has won six premierships, so he knows how to get players to achieve.

Legal policy-makers argue against “using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut”, because a disproportionate force is used. But take it from a footy nut like me, a few more cracks from a sledgehammer are needed for the message to sink in.

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About the Author

Alex Perrottet is an Australian journalist currently working in New Zealand.

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