Sex scandal prompts tears and promises

By Julian Linden

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's professional rugby league players have always been a rugged breed in a sport where brutality is part of the game's enduring appeal.

They are not the sort of men you expect to see break down and cry, but the tears have been flowing freely this past week.

The game is in shame, brought to its knees by a sex scandal involving up to a dozen players from the Cronulla club that happened in New Zealand seven years ago.

Guardians of the sport have warned players to clean up their behaviour after details of the incident came to light on national television last week when a woman, who was aged 19 at the time, said it had destroyed her life.

"It's time to accept the changes we are putting in place or get out of rugby league," said National Rugby League (NRL) chief executive David Gallop, after issuing an apology on behalf of the whole sport following the revelations in a television documentary.

"If you are not on board with the change that we are endeavouring to implement then don't play rugby league."

Hardly a year has passed in the last decade when the game has not been hit by one scandal or another.

The television documentary, entitled The Code of Silence, looked at a series of sex scandals over the past five years, including a complaint against the Bulldogs club in 2003 and 2004 and an incident involving Newcastle in 2005.

The most damning part of the program was the detailing of the incident in New Zealand in 2002. The woman, who was not identified by the television program, said players had lined up to take turns having sex with her.


Police, who investigated at the time, decided not to bring charges after the players said the woman had consented.

"If I had a gun I'd shoot them right now. I hate them, they're disgusting. I want them dead, I hate them so much," said the woman on the documentary.

The fallout from the program was swift and sharp. The only player named by the woman, former international Matthew Johns, admitted his involvement.

Within days, he lost his jobs as a television presenter and assistant coach to one of the NRL teams, Melbourne Storm. He appeared on prime-time television, alongside his wife, to issue a tearful public apology for his actions.

Women's groups threatened to ban their children from watching rugby league and Catholic schools said they were considering dropping the game from their sporting programs.

Phil Gould, a former player and coach, broke down and cried when he spoke about the issue on television.

Some say the players are not entirely to blame for the culture that has grown up around rugby league. Even critics agree that the problem is deeper and more widespread and that it is time the sport took a close look at itself.

Rugby league is a spectacular, fast-running game, but a violent one too. Physical strength and bravery are just as important as skill and wit.

Brutality is celebrated rather than condemned, with marketing companies promoting the players as fearless, modern-day gladiators.


Team 'bonding' has long been an integral part of the working-class ethos of rugby league but underneath the tough image lies a hidden culture of alcohol abuse and group sex and the general consensus is that some players have strayed well beyond the moral boundaries.

The signs were ominous for the NRL even before the current season began.

Their A$1-million (499,000 pounds) advertising blitz had to be reworked after the chosen face of the campaign, Manly fullback Brett Stewart, was charged with indecent assault of a teenage girl.

Stewart's team mate Anthony Watmough was then fined for punching a sponsor at the Manly team's season launch, while a high-profile Cronulla player, Greg Bird, was convicted of hitting his girlfriend in the face with a glass and lying to police about the attack.

Those incidents embarrassed the NRL and led to renewed calls for clubs to play a bigger role in ensuring their players behaved off the field. The league introduced programs to educate young players about the dangers of sex and alcohol.

Gallop warned that it was time for a huge change in the game's hidden cultures.

"Violence against women is abhorrent and sexual assault and the degradation of women is just that," he said.

"If anyone in the game today is ignoring the importance of that message, then frankly they will need to find another career."

(Editing by Clare Fallon.

Article Published: 19/05/2009