ONCE again, the National Rugby League is in the news for the wrong reasons, with an investigation by a NSW police organised crime squad finding evidence that cocaine, gambling and prostitution are rife within the competition.
As disturbing as this picture of rugby league culture might be, it pales beside what is arguably the biggest long-term problem facing the code, and that is the danger of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, from repeated concussions.
No longer are tales of old footballers – or old boxers – who have taken one too many hits to the head, something to laugh about.
Thanks largely to research in relation to the National Football League in America, the danger with sports concussion is now a global concern. Even the round ball code has concerns with the header. In the NRL, the Newcastle Knights have been hit as hard as any team, with the James McManus court case and a $50,000 fine in March for the handling of a player after a high tackle.
On top of those incidents, the main focus is now on boom player and co-captain Sione Mata’utia, whose contract negotiations have been deferred while the Knights’ new owner, the Wests Group, attempts to gain more clarity around his situation.
Mata’utia has had at least five concussions in the past two seasons. At just 21, he is a player the club has identified as a potential long-term leader.
Both player and club are in invidious positions. Mata’utia, like any number of young athletes, has dedicated his life to a game that he loves, a game that can set him up for life if he continues the rich vein of form that saw him made the youngest Kangaroo in 2014.
But the Knights, as part of the Wests Group, are a business, and under chief executive Phil Gardner and his management team, Wests have made every post a winner while registered clubs around them fall like ten pins. They have already assured that any liability from the McManus case will remain with the NRL. Their task now is to weigh the calculated risks involved with Mata’utia, to somehow see into his future.
And that is the difficulty for the club, and for the game as a whole. The violence inherent in rugby league means that injuries – extremely serious ones, at times – will always be part of the game, regardless of the protocols in place. The liability genie is out of the bottle, and no amount of wishing will stuff it back in.