What next in the Blake Ferguson saga: an explanation of the legal steps

I have long been bothered by the rampant disinformation about matters of law sprouted by the sports journalists of this country when a player gets into trouble. To make matters a bit clearer for fans I thought I would commit to writing what the process is from here, as I see it, for Blake Ferguson.

Let’s start, obviously, with the charge: Ferguson has been charged with, as far as I can glean, one count of indecent assault. I have no knowledge of the facts leading to the charge and make no comment about them. What follows is a generic explanation of the next steps based on my experience and a little confirming research.

Obviously, though rarely it seems reported in cases involving sportsmen, every defendant charged with a criminal offence in this country is considered to be innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. This is a immutable right that every individual in Australia has and which is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which has been ratified by Australia.

Most reports make much about the fact that there is another Court date coming up for Ferguson in July. If you are a watcher of American legal dramas you may have cause to think that this will be when the trial occurs. Sadly, justice does not operate that quickly in Australia or, frankly, in an 1st world jurisdiction.

Assuming Ferguson pleads not guilty the process between now and a trial could take anywhere up to twelve months or more. This is because, in part, in Australia for offences such as that which Ferguson is charged with it is necessary for the parties to go through a committal hearing which is a hearing before the Local Court at which the prosecution must place before a magistrate its evidence to determine whether there is sufficient evidence upon which the defendant may be convicted at a trial.

The period between the charge and the committal hearing is punctuated with mentions of the matter before a magistrate that deals with matters such as the continuance of the defendants bail and the provision of the evidence upon which the prosecution wishes to rely at the committal and later at trial.

At the committal hearing the magistrate can decide whether the matter proceeds to a trial before, in the case of an indecent assault charge before a District Court judge or to dismiss the charges. If the matter proceeds to a trial that will be another delay for another series of mentions that will again go to the question of bail, the evidence that both sides want to put at trial and any legal questions the parties have. All of this takes time and thus a swift resolution to this matter should a not guilty plea be made is unlikely.

It is, of course possible for negotiations about charges to occur before a committal and before a trial. Following negotiations between the prosecution and defence, in some cases the accused may agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge e.g. assault occasioning actual bodily harm becomes assault, or to the same charge but with the facts changed in some respect.

All in all this is a long and drawn out process, in the case of a not guilty plea at least. A swift resolution could only come from negotiation between the parties, if the complainant withdrew her complaint or upon a guilty plea. I, for one, will be watching with interest the next steps the parties take.

Player Behaviour: Ferguson, Dugan, Tamou, Warner and the lament of a fan

The events of today in Rugby League in Australia have again led to a player being suspended from a representative game and have his contract, for all intents and purposes, ripped up (I am aware that his registration has been suspended and not cancelled but lets be honest, that is the next step). The punishment meted out on Blake Ferguson tonight, it must be noted, is as a result of a series of breaches of the rules surrounding player contracts regarding alcohol and bringing the game into disrepute. Tonight’s incident was just the straw that broke the camel’s back it seems.

If the ultimate outcome hypothesised tonight, that Blake Ferguson will be out of a Canberra Raiders jersey for at least the rest of the season, becomes a reality then the issue of player behaviour will leave the Canberra Raiders without, arguably, their two best players for the remainder of the season. I am a Canberra Raiders fan and as a fan of this proud club that fact leaves me feeling more than a little let down.

Add to that the fact that the other Canberra Raiders player to have his contract terminated this season is already playing rugby league for another club and, apparently, is about to rewarded with a multi-million dollar contract and my anger at the state that the conduct of these two players has left my club in rises.

Just to focus on the impact that player behaviour is having on the Canberra Raiders though it short sighted in the extreme though. The indefinite suspension of Blake Ferguson is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bad player behaviour this season. Indeed until the Ferguson issue many thought the problems with player behaviour in the NRL had reached their epoch with the dangerous driving and unlicensed driving charges laid against James Tamou last week. I am sad to concede that this week’s events have raised the spectre of player behaviour to a whole new level.

The events of last week though also show that the issue of player behaviour is NOT isolated to the NRL. David Warner’s alcohol fuelled punch of an opponent should leave watchers of sport in no doubt that it is not just the NRL that has a problem.

Now many will say that to suggest that a particular sporting code has a problem because of the conduct of a few is a sweeping statement that is ill considered and ought not be made. However, I am not just saying that: the facts indicate a much worse scenario; that sport (in general) in Australia has problems with player behaviour. I have mentioned four examples from a veritable smorgasbord of conduct that goes to this point. If you need any further convincing you can easily add the drugs in sport scandals that are going in the AFL and the NRL, the issues had by the St Kilda AFL club a couple of years ago and the ongoing poor conduct of Kurtley Beale and Digby Ioane in Rugby Union to the list of conduct that even to a sight impaired observer must be indicative of a broader problem.

I think it can be plainly stated, and I am not going to shy from saying, that there is a problem with behaviour in the ranks of professional sportsmen in this country. As a fan of sport I openly lament that the conduct of whom I believe to still be a few in a minority has such a broad impact on the standing of the whole of codes of sport and indeed sport in general but that is where I think we are at at the moment.

As a sports fan I have heard every excuse under the sun for poor player conduct from the players have too much spare time on their hands through to it is society’s fault for placing these young men on pedestals. I am sick to the back teeth of the excuses: just because players have a massive disposable wealth, only work a couple of days a week and are treated like gods does mean that they can, without penalty, break the law and last time I checked kids are still taught at school that breaking the law is wrong.

That fact gets me to the second lament of this post: have we as a society moved so far that the players of our sports actually do not believe that the law applies to them? I heard a very interesting interview with the player welfare officer from the Parramatta Eels on the weekend (on ABC Grandstand) in which he mentioned that getting young players to actually get a license, despite the often high powered cars they drive at least to and from training, was a massive problem for clubs. If it takes a player welfare officer to ask for a copy of the license of each player to start the process of actually getting these 18-25 year old men their first license is that not indicative of a disregard for rules and the law that is both alarming and also obviously has the potential to escalate into incidents such as those of yesterday evening?

I have no solutions that have not already been raised or that are not obvious. The fact is though that if these young men do not respect the basic laws of the land such as having a license to drive a motor vehicle will any of the solutions work? I am a strong advocate of a duel approach of holding all but money for the bare essentials in trust for young players until they are retired from the game coupled with forcing young players to have a job outside of the sport they play. Whether this would have the effect of stopping the players breaking the law I do not know. What I do know that making the players live on $50K a year out of their contract surely would make it less likely that they would on the grog on Sunday night before going into State of Origin camp, for example.

Sport in this country has problems and player behaviour is right at the forefront of those problems. With competition for kids activities never stronger from the likes of Apple, Nintendo and the like why would an unknowing parent chose to place their child into an environment as obviously troubled as one of the sporting codes when they can stay at home fully supervised? I know that is an extreme example but can anyone tell me that is not where we are heading?

The fact that things seem to be heading that way is an abomination and an affront to the 99% of sportsmen who work extremely hard to play the games that they love and who do not wantonly break the laws of this country. It is those players for whom I lament the state of the games they play because all of the good that they do is washed away by the conduct of a few. It is easy to forget that almost 250 players took the field in the NRL at the weekend and only 1 has been suspended indefinitely because of his conduct off the field at the end of said weekend.

So I leave this post with a challenge for readers: whilst we, as sport fans are lamenting another case of poor player conduct bringing one of the games we love into disrepute, do not forget the exemplary conduct of those many many players who do conduct themselves in a manner befitting their station in life. To forget such conduct means that sport in this country could find itself in serious trouble sooner rather than later!