Class Betrayal

Filed in Other by on December 11, 2010

Rugby league is a resolute sport born entirely out of a working class ideology that prizes egalitarianism and justice for the working man. The great split of 1895 came about over broken time payments and the refusal of the Rugby Football Union, fearful that their sport was heading to the masses the same as soccer, to allow Northern clubs to pay their working class players for time missed at work. Only those who could afford to play should, was the distinctly snobbish middle-class line touted by the union administration. From the time of the split until the time union threw away amateurism, their primary tool of working class exclusion, any association with rugby league would result in a lifetime ban, a position that gave rugby league a pariah status. This position of being an unwanted outsider provided league with, according to Tony Collins in his book Rugby League in the Twentieth Century: A Social and Cultural History, “its sense of identity-not just northern and manly but also resolutely working class.” The game came to represent the exertion of the limited political and social muscle of the working class and was viewed as a source of pride by working class communities and a creative outlet and accepted vent for working class men bound by their social status, limited means and family responsibility.

The history of rugby league in Australia also travels through the same grimy working class suburbs and industrial wastelands with the same moral outrage seen over the refusal to pay broken time in Northern England also seen in Australia against the obscenity of rugby union’s refusal to pay injured players who were forced to miss work. Alex Burdon was a Glebe barber who missed ten weeks work when injured during a representative union match in 1907. George Parsons rightly notes in Capitalism, Class and Community: Civilising and Sanitising the People’s Game that while Burdon’s injury was the trigger, “rugby league emerged from a conjuncture of historical forces which reached its critical mass in 1907”. Parsons argues that rugby league in Australia developed out of “class consciousness”, a response to the tenets of freedom, gentility, conservatism and amateurism behind the ruling class game of union. The working class prized physical hardness, mental toughness, equality and the right to be able to afford to play. They also sought value for money, prizing their limited means to entertainment and subsequently preferred watching better athletes, harder men and a more dynamic game, an underlying factor behind the constantly evolving nature and the sheer physical toughness of the sport. When Dally Messenger, the most exciting athlete of his time and a man firmly in touch with his working class roots, signed with rugby league, it ensured crowds would turn out to watch and after the Great Defection of 1909 when 14 Wallabies switched to league including Chris McKivat, the only man to captain both the Kangaroos and the Wallabies, league quickly surpassed union as the sport of the masses in Sydney and soon after Queensland and the remainder of New South Wales. It has not been challenged since.

The making of rugby league was not about money making or capitalism or a belief that rugby league could provide a living or a life-time earning capacity. It was about social justice and egalitarianism and a refusal to take further oppression. It was, as Parsons notes, “the game of those fighting for economic justice, for some alleviation of the appalling social conditions…for better housing, for reform, dignity and decency.” As Booker Prize winning author Thomas Keneally says in his wonderful essay “Innocence” in League of a Nation, “at the base of this great game lies a great and earnest virtue and that virtue is still obvious.”

The game quickly became a magnet for society’s losers: the working class, the Irish Catholic, the poor, the downtrodden. It was from the very beginning a game of class and community, of inclusiveness and solidarity. Such a doctrine was embraced by those inside the game and those that supported it. It wasn’t about the individual. It was about the community as a whole.

Due to its roots in the working class, the game has always been popular in Labor circles. There are rare exceptions in the Liberal Party like John Fahey, an avid Bulldogs man who played in the reserves for the Berries mid-sixties. Rugby league’s working class status has always made it a Labor game though and throughout history it has received the support of many Labor politicians. Billy Hughes was a founding member of Glebe. Chris Watson, the first ever Labor Prime Minister, was the first club patron of South Sydney. Doc Evatt was the driving force behind the University team. Neville Wran was a Balmain boy to the core and bled orange and black. Labor fixer Graham Richardson and former Senate President Doug McClelland are both passionate Dragons men. Fred Daly was a Bluebag until the death before adopting the Canberra Raiders with equal fervour. These days Wayne Swan is a real Broncos man (as opposed to Kevin Rudd, who transparently has adopted the team despite the fact he couldn’t pick Sam Thaiday out of a lineup, something that is only acceptable if Deborah Mailman is in said lineup) and Anthony Albanese has always vocally trumpeted his love of South Sydney. Parsons astutely observed that “the personnel of Labor branches and League clubs were often almost interchangeable.”

Former Labor Senator Kerry Sibraa relays a great tale about former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser who “was not exactly what you’d call a sporting enthusiast, let alone a rugby league one.” Sibraa, a Manly Sea Eagle fan since the club’s inception and a man who was recently called in to help negotiate peace between the warring owners of the club, recalled the meeting between Fraser and rugged former Manly skipper Fred Jones in the dressing sheds before the 1978 Grand Final. “They were introduced with all due propriety and Malcolm Fraser said: ‘Well Mr Jones, tell me, what do you do for a living now that you no longer play football?’ Fred replies: ‘I’m a wharfie’. Malcolm leans back on his heels and says: ‘A wharfie, eh, I have many friends who work on the wharves.’ To which Fred replies: ‘Well I’ve never met any of them’”. Even the silvertails of the league, those whose image was shaped by money and power, were entrenched in the working class mentality of the game and all it stands for. Us against them. The oppressed against the oppressors. Equality over freedom. Egalitarianism.

Such is the egalitarianism shown in rugby league that it has accepted aborigines in its playing ranks from the start with George Green a decade-long player who was critical to North Sydney’s first and only rise to prominence where as, according to Colin Tatz in Obstacle Race: Aborigines in Sport, “Australian Rules took nearly fifty years to find a place for its first indigenous players.” Wally McArthur, a champion sprinter from South Australia who abandoned athletics due to racism, signed to play league in England with Rochdale and was selected for a Rest of the World team that rolled England on the back of his four tries. Lionel Morgan became the first aboriginal to represent Australia in 1960. Arthur Beetson captained Australia in 1973 and 1974.

In Britain, Wigan’s George Bennett became the first black man to represent Great Britain in any sport way back in the 1930’s after he left Wales and rugby union due to racism. Wales did not field a black player until the 1980’s. It was in 1972 that Britain had its first black captain when Hull player Clive Sullivan led Great Britain in a rugby league Test against France. Roy Francis became the first black coach of a top flight English sports team when he coached Hull in 1956. Ellery Hanley became the first black coach of a national side in Britain when he coached the Lions against Australia in the 1994 Ashes series.

Rugby league has often transcended race, class and religion, an accomplishment very few institutions can claim. The history of the game has been inclusive and the intentions of its participants, for the most part, pure: they played for the love of the game and supporters flocked because they not only enjoyed the spectacle but because they approved of what the code stood for.

I am not naïve enough to believe that players play for the love of the game these days. And nor should they. The game makes money and the players should share in that money. That has always been the rugby league way. There are those who do play because of a genuine affection for the sport and probably would for very little with money well down the list. Alan Tongue comes to mind. And there are those who are driven purely by money and I won’t hear an argument suggesting the likes of Sonny Bill Williams, Jarryd Hayne, Willie Mason and Lote Tuqiri are nothing but mercenary athletes available to the biggest bidder.

The playing group as a collective would be well advised not to take their lead from the likes of mercenaries like Hayne and Mason and push this game of brinksmanship to the point of industrial action. Rugby league may be entrenched in a working class tradition but a strike would not be a working class cause and would be rejected by every other stakeholder in the game. Past players are insulted at the avarice shown and the lack of respect given to the game. Fans view it as nothing more than greed and a capitalistic pursuit of money with little consideration given to the game as a whole and you can be sure and certain that strike action would be met with contempt, disgust and outrage from supporters of rugby league. Administrators, particularly those at clubs who may be sympathetic to the players in order to keep them in the code, would rightly argue that the players are getting all the game can afford at present.

Players calling for a strike appear to be appealing the working class instincts intrinsic in the sport but they are coming off as nothing more than greedheads who would sell their babies and auction off their wives if it would bring them an extra buck.

It has been disappointing to see the likes of Cameron Smith, Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston and Petero Civoniceva throw their ample weight behind the possibility of a player strike. It is obvious that the players do not have a grasp of the financial state of rugby league, that they do not understand the long-term ramifications of possible industrial action and that they do not understand how they are being perceived by the rugby league public. Particularly galling to most is that this strike would not be in support of the rugby league poor, those players on minimum deals and earning less than $100,000 a season, or for an improved system but for the game’s elite who are upset at their $500,000 or $600,000 contract and want more. Such greed is in complete opposition with the principles on which the game has been built. At least Petero Civoniceva talked of a want for bigger squad sizes and a better deal for bottom tier players when he met with RLPA boss David Gansey midweek.

There seems to be a line of thinking among the game’s elite that they are entitled to earn a lifetime’s income from rugby league, that because the game is hard and their careers last no longer than 15 years that the game owes them enough to support them for the rest of their lives. This is an absurd notion. If you work hard and write a book it is not a given that you will earn enough off that to live forever. You have to write another book or do something else. You don’t see too many fifty-year-old minesweepers. They go and get another job when that aspect of their working life finishes. Rugby league players should be no different. Your league career finishes, you go and get another job. That is life. This assumption that a career limited by a small window of opportunity entitles you to a lifetime of earnings is arrogant, selfish and stupid. It is also a slap in the face for those who follow the game who have to work hard to pay for tickets, jerseys and pay television to enjoy the sport.

The player’s best course of action is to take a more measured, agreeable approach. The best they can hope for is a better collective bargaining agreement, a bigger television deal and an independent commission that will eliminate the structural inefficiencies in the game and ensure there is more money available. The next CBA will be negotiated this year and it will almost certainly result in a salary cap increase and greater contributions to player payments through the Retirement Fund. There will also be significant concessions for loyal players, greater rep payments, a rise in the minimum wage and probably a relaxation of rules relating to club sponsors ability to top up player payments. A bigger television deal will certainly lead to a big increase in the cap which, obviously, will lead to bigger player payments. Talk has it that the estimated deal could lead to a $6 million salary cap. Any strike action from players, particularly something that was prolonged as has been the case in the NHL and Major League Baseball in recent times, would have a significantly detrimental impact on the television deal that would severely hurt any prospect of wage growth and better conditions. A strike could also further delay the formation of an independent commission with News and the ARL not prepared to put clubs at risk if income is lost and support drops because of players joining the picket line. The death of any club would certainly hurt the playing group as there will be less jobs and less money in the sport.

You can’t get blood from a stone or so the old saying says and players would do well to remember that their future earning capacity is heavily correlated with the financial health of the code.

The players need to show some common sense and gag the idiotic and disrespectful remarks from selfish pigfuckers like Jarryd Hayne from talking up strikes and sit down and nut this out like reasonable adults. For themselves and for the good of the game.

Every player has a right to earn what they can but it is not the responsibility of rugby league to endanger the game to pay these players what they believe they are worth. The survival of the clubs should never be put in doubt for a few supposed elite players threatening defection or crying poor. If they don’t like what they are getting paid in the NRL they can go to union or Super League or Hungarian water polo. It is a choice most of us have.

Despite being a working class game, rugby league has not had a strike in over a century of existence. It would be a tremendous shame and an act of grave treachery if the player’s were to hit the picket line now. That is how the public will perceive it and that is how every other stakeholder in rugby league will view it. Driven by greed and insulated by arrogance. A strike would be an act of class betrayal. It is as simple as that.

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