Sports Fan Poll: Player Behaviour and Punishment

Yesterday, Queensland Reds player Karmichael Hunt pleaded guilty to the possession an illegal drug and was punished both under the criminal justice system and by the Queensland Reds.  The punishment received by Hunt from the Reds has been widely debated.  Interestingly, the views of among my circle of family and friends are completely divergent from those of people that I follow on social media.  On the one hand there is a feeling that the punishment from the Reds is not on all fours with community standards whilst on the other there is a feeling that punishment is about right, if not a little harsh.

I have no interest in rehashing that debate here.  Regular readers will know my views.

What I am interested in discussing though is this quote from Queensland Reds CEO (in his letter to Reds Members sent by email):

“In determining our course of action, you have my assurance that we will always regard, as our primary concern, the long-term interests of the game, our Members, fans, partners and stakeholders.  However, the welfare of our players is paramount.” (emphasis added)

The statement is internally self defeating in the sense that it commences with a declaration of primacy that it then reverses in the very next sentence.  Whilst I am in violent agreement that player welfare is an important aspect of the management of players by any sport club, I struggle with the notion that the interests of player welfare trump that which is in the best interests of the sporting code or those who fund the game through their membership, payment for tickets and sponsorship.

I am left to ponder:

  1.  Whether the manner in which the Queensland Reds have dealt with Karmichael Hunt represents a new paradigm for dealing with player behaviour or whether the interests of code, the club, the members, the fans and the sponsors have always been secondary and I have just missed it in the punishment phases of the other scandals that have befouled sport in this country.
  2. How long will it be before a player gets into trouble again but is not punished in a fashion that has his (or her) welfare as the paramount focus and appeals his punishment.  Will the Carmichael “doctrine” become an appealable (litigious) point for a player at some point in the future?

I am, of course, aware that often in these matters I do not possess the popular view point so I thought I would open this question up to the readers for a poll the results of which I will publish in a week’s time on this blog.

The poll question is this:

I look forward to seeing how the results of this poll come out in a week’s time.

 

Sanity finally prevails: O’Connor released from his ARU contract

James O’Connor has been released from his contract with the Australian Rugby Union and will not be selected for the remaining six games of the Test season. Additionally, the ARU has confirmed that he will not be offered a salary top-up next year which could cost him somewhere in the vicinity of $300,000 next year if someone deigns to contract him to ply in Super Rugby in 2014.

Hallelujah!!!!!

I salute the ARU for taking this step. The continuing breaches of team rules and the contractual arrangements by which O’Connor was employed by the ARU simply could not be let stand and anyone who suggests to the contrary is just flat out wrong.

I am heartened by the statement released by O’Connor in the aftermath of this decision in which he is quoted as saying:

"I recognise that given my actions and the circumstances it is best for the team and myself to go in different directions in the short term. I remain focused on earning my place back with the Wallabies and will be looking for the right opportunity to do this.”

I hope he can come back from this because his, largely unfulfilled, talent is prodigious to say the least.

More to the point though I hope that the ARU and the Wallabies selectors remain firm on this new position they are taking when it comes to player behaviour. It is heartening to see that, despite the rebuilding phase we are going through presently, behaviour such as that of O’Connor’s will no longer be countenanced and, indeed, rewarded as it was during the “Deans era”.

Player Behaviour: Well said David Shillington!

Canberra Raiders Co-captain David Shillington was quoted as follows in the press this week:

“Depending on how the coach handles you or how the club handles you, sometimes you create the devil in players.

”If a player mucks up and you don’t drop him from the team or you don’t have some sort of serious consequences … I think that’s when you create the devil in players.

“It makes them bigger than the club, and I think we saw that at our club this year with a few players.”

I applauded those comments when I read them and, despite Shillington being fined by the Raiders for making the statements, I applaud them again now. I mean is Shillington saying anything that the fans of the game are not thinking every time another player of any code finds themselves in trouble?

I, for one, wish more players were as honest as David Shillington and, indeed, hope all coaches and administrators take heed of the sentiment in the comments.

Pandering to bad conduct IS NOT AND HAS NOT WORKED. Now is the time for a renewed focus on discipline: I hope it happens sooner rather than later!

Bye Bye Blake! Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out!

Thank goodness that is over! The saga of Blake Ferguson’s tenure as a Canberra Raider player is now over and ended with these words from Don Furner:

“The board were left with little choice but to terminate Blake Ferguson’s contract, after several breaches of club policy”.

Despite all of the support shown for Ferguson by the Raiders, he did not have the fortitude to attend a board meeting summonsed to discuss his recent conduct and that, according to the Raiders statement was the last straw.

The season that was for Ferguson included being the other part of the infamous roof top photo with Josh Dugan, a sexual assault charge whilst in camp with the NSW State of Origin team, the sacking of the coach who supported him after the players could not take that support any more, a disappearing act in recent weeks and playing mute in a bizarre press conference. It is fair to say that his sacking has been a long time coming.

In a season where:

· Josh Dugan was sacked by the club but not de-registered only to find himself playing for another club;

· Sandor Earl has been stood down earlier for conduct that pre-dated his time with the club; and

· Anthony Milford has decided he does not want to stay with the club that gave him a chance in the top flight,

The NRL MUST deregister Ferguson and await the outcome of his current court case as well as the obvious counselling he requires if only to ensure that the Raiders are not punished AGAIN for doing the right thing but also give Ferguson a chance to get his life in order.

It has been a difficult season to be a Canberra Raiders fan this season. Hopefully drawing a line under this sorry saga can assist fans, like me, get some closure and move forward looking towards the 2014 season. It will be all the more difficult to do that if one of the first things that Raiders fans see is Ferguson rewarded with another contract next season.

Here’s hoping he gets the help he obviously needs and the Raiders can move forward with a squad of players who want to play in the green jersey of this proud club. In the meantime: bye bye Blake … I can’t say it has been fun or even rewarding.

Kurtley Beale: can I have his employment contract? Or that of any “sportstar” for that matter?

I have watched with a mix of astonishment and bemusement at the latest round of drama that seems to follow Australian Rugby Union player Kurtley Beale wherever he goes. For those who missed the drama of the week was Beale and is oft partner in crime, James O’Connor, being caught at a hamburger restaurant at 4am in the aftermath of the Melbourne Rebels’ defeat by the British and Irish Lions on Tuesday night. There was, apparently, no alcohol involved but they were still out eating a hamburger at 4am four days before they were due to play in a test match.

Kurtley Beales other indiscretions have been well documented but are worth rementioning: an assault charge that was settled at mediation, punching two of his (now former) teammates whilst on tour with his (also now former) Super Rugby franchise and then a breach of strict alcohol rules are the known behavioural issues that have faced Beale in the last 18 months. I am all for people being given second chances and now that Beale is seemingly on his fifth chance with the ARU I have had a moment of pause to consider this question: if Beale was employed by anyone other than the Australian Rugby Union would he still be employed?

I have already written in an earlier blog about the special treatment received (having both positive and negative impacts on them) in the context of poor behaviour. I have also written about the presumption of innocence and how important it is to remember that presumption in the context of the regular imbroglios sports stars seem to find themselves presently.

All that said, I think it is pretty obvious that the answer to the question posed in the preceding is a resounding “NO”. Let’s put Beale’s conduct in the context of someone who works in a professional context. I am happy to use myself as the guinea pig here: I work for a large firm in the city. My working hours are malleable but are generally between 7:45am and 6:30pm with a couple of days of work on weekends a month the norm. I have a team of 11 people that work for me and sit in a broader team of about 70 people. I am bound by a contract of employment with my employer that regulates my conduct during work hours and also, as is standard, requires me to follow the lawful directions of my employer.

Starting then with the obvious, I can never recall any occasion during my 15 year career in the work force where I have had moment to be out until 4am and then stop to grab a burger on a work night? Perhaps on the way to work before a large mediation or if I have a heap of work on maybe but not because I felt like going out and meeting up with some mates. How could any professional function in their job after, obviously, no sleep the night before.

The assault charge is a difficult one: I am fairly sure that my employer, or any employer in the professional work force, would be extremely displeased with an employee being charged with assault. I am unsure as to whether such a scenario would be grounds for immediate dismissal but I am pretty sure the said employee would be at least given a formal warning.

Then we turn to the combination of punching a fellow team mate and then ignoring a direction not to drink: can anyone think of any context in which an employee in a professional context would survive with his or her job intact after having a drunken brawl with two of his / her colleagues? I am pretty sure if I punched one of my fellow directors and one of the partners (given that G Delve was captain of the team at the time) on a boozy night out I would not be receiving just a warning: my employment would be terminated. If, however, I did survive and receive a warning on the condition that my employment would continue on the proviso that I not break the team rules again then surely breaking said rules would mean that I would be terminated and have to find a new job wouldn’t it? I have no doubt it would.

Sportstars are regularly crying that we (being the fans and the media) do not “understand how much pressure they are under”. Forgive me for not giving any sympathy: after all said sportstars are paid to play sport. The other regular refrain from sportstars and their apologists are that they are held to a higher standard because of the “celebrity” and that is unfair. With all due respect to those who push that argument: how can you say that when, in fact, it would appear based the available evidence that sportstars are held to a lower standard by their employers than anyone else who had a professional job in this country?

My gripe here is not with Kurtley Beale and his mate O’Connor: I am not surprised that they were caught out (again). My gripe is with the spinelessness of their employers. Actually, it is worth noting that my gripe is not just with the ARU at this juncture because afterall we have, in recent times also had the displeasure of seeing the following conduct rewarded with continued employment (by the governing body of the game):

1. Semi-regular abuse of opposing players, abuse of journalists doing their job and punching an opposing player (David Warner); and
2. Complete and open disregard for the authority of one’s employer, failing to follow a direction not to drink alcohol before training and sending a photographic message to one’s coach of your contempt for him (Josh Dugan).

The governing bodies of the sports we love are doing themselves and those that they employ who do the right thing a disservice by not handling these matters like any other employer would. How will players who behave badly or, indeed, just stupidly ever learn their lesson if they are not punished as someone in everyday life would be? A semi-regular refrain from those in sport is that they just want to be treated like regular every day people but they can not have their metaphorical cake and eat it to; viz., if they want to be treated like everyone else they also must be treated like everyone else when it comes to their employment and NOT with the special treatment they seem to presently receive.

I am not talking about forcing people out of sport because they make a mistake here and I am a massive believer of second chances in life. Getting a second chance though comes with it learning from ones mistakes and I question how someone receiving the special treatment when it comes to appointment that sportstars do will ever learn from their mistakes? Getting caught out at 4am 4 days before a test match indicates that Kurtley Beale has not learned his lesson.

All that said: how good would it be to be on the same sort of contract that Beale and others must be on which entitles them to, seemingly, do whatever they want whenever they want without thought to the consequences? I wonder where I can get one of them?

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!