The Scales of Justice: Reflections on a Harsh Penalty, Proposals for Future Salary Cap Reform

Filed in Other by on December 11, 2010

The salary cap is critical to the survival and growth of rugby league. A relatively even talent distribution is necessary for fans to continue to believe in the code. Hope is what fan support is built on and without it interest withers, clubs die and the game is marginalised. In a competitive football market like Australia, open salary situations like the English Premier League or Major League Baseball will not wash. It is important that fans of each team have hope that on any given weekend they can win and in any given season they are a title hope. If they aren’t legitimate title contenders then clubs must be seen to be rebuilding for a shot in the next few seasons. There are the scarred like Richmond and South Sydney and Cronulla fans but for the most part fans believe in any given season that maybe this is the year, the year where it all goes right, the year where a summer of anticipation and a winter of seismic fortunes are rewarded with spring glories. It is not a part of the egalitarian Australian way to allow teams to purchase premierships. Purchased dynasties like that of Manchester United and the New York Yankees simply don’t make the nut here.

The argument has been made by the likes of Phil Gould that fans turn up to watch elite athletes play and that seeing the likes of Williams, Gasnier, Tuqiri, Gower, Sailor, Hunt and company leave the NRL for cash impacts on the popularity of the sport. All the evidence flies in the face of such a position. As these players have defected to rugby or AFL or the English Super League, by every measure of popularity from attendance to television ratings, the NRL has flourished. Fans go to watch their club. They want to see wonderful athleticism and entertaining play and historically great players but one thing will always be true in rugby league: the club is more important than the individual.

And that, really, is why the salary cap is essential for the NRL. The salary cap protects clubs financially by limiting the amount they can spend on their playing roster but more importantly, it provides the necessary hope for fans of every club to grab onto and believe in.

This is not an argument against the salary cap. This will, hopefully, be a constructive essay about how the NRL could better handle the Melbourne Storm situation and, looking forward, what measures can be put in place to make the salary cap more workable and monitoring it more transparent.

The most draconian aspect of the Storm’s punishment, to my eye, was the prohibition on earning premiership points for 2010. The NRL has a fair and valid argument in that it would be an awful look and grossly unjust to other clubs if Melbourne were to make the finals or have a legitimate shot at the premiership. Those opposed to it also have a fair point in suggesting that having the Storm play for nothing damages the competition and unfairly punishes the players and fans of not only the Storm but other clubs. The argument goes that playing for pride isn’t enough and that making the Storm play for nothing fundamentally eats away at the integrity of the entire competition. While much of it has been lost in Phil Gould’s vitriol and personal attacks on David Gallop and the NRL administration, the argument that the Storm should be allowed to compete once they shed enough talent to get their squad under $4.1 million does have a good deal of merit.

Getting the Storm squad back under $4.1 million this year would be quite a task as the Storm would have to shed $700,000 and would be a good deal more complex than Gould and his supporters would have you believe. The Storm would have to get rid of at least two or three quality players and then find two or three minimum-contract players to replace them. Deals would have to be reached with other clubs. Negotiations would need to take place between the Storm, the NRL and any possible suitors as to what proportion of the salary would be paid by the Storm and what by the new club. Players would need to relocate. The NRL would need to be assured that both the Storm and the new club were operating within the cap. All of this would take at least a month which means the Storm would not be able to accrue points. By the time they could start winning premiership points, the likelihood is that it would be too late to make a finals run but at least it would provide for the possibility and allow Storm fans and players to go about business as per normal.

The Storm would still have to, for the most part, dismantle their team for 2011 as most contracts are backended and they will have to clear $1 million. Rather than just tell the Storm the rest of their season is essentially meaningless, they should be able to right their wrongs, if not for themselves then for the value of the competition as a whole. The Storm should then be put on recruitment probation for the next 3 to 4 years whereby the only offer they can make to players from other clubs is the minimum deal of $55,000. This will get the Storm back under the cap, it will punish the team by not allowing them to bring in anyone but bottom-tiered players and it will allow the competition to go back to eight competitive games a week.

This kind of penalty strikes me as far more rational and thought out than the simple prohibition on the Storm earning points which fundamentally damages the integrity of the competition.

It is also time to look at a far more rational, flexible, thoughtful way to run the salary cap.

For starters, the game needs to devote more resources to the office charged with ensuring compliance with the salary cap. At the moment it is just a showy former outside back with a bit of accounting experience and an offsider. Bulldogs boss Todd Greenberg pushed for this today and he is right. If the NRL wants to continue down this path of heavy punishments for systematic salary cap breaches then they need to find resources to boost the investigation team to ensure five years of rorting, as was the case at the Storm, do not go undetected for five years. The NRL has to take some responsibility for the damage done to the image of the game this Storm incident has caused not because of their heavy hand in punishment but because of their failure to stop the cheating for so long. That cheating would still be occurring too if it wasn’t for a vindictive whistleblower who is now working at the AFL. The NRL can’t, simply, rely on disgruntled former employees to police the salary cap.

There needs to be greater transparency regarding player salary. This means a public register. You can go to USA Today and find the salaries of not only every NFL, MLB and NBA player but historical salaries of players long retired and forgotten about. A register makes the system of player payments more transparent. It allows the public to get an idea of a players worth and will make situations such as Brett Finch to Melbourne on a minimum deal much more suspicious if he was previously listed as a $200,000 to $300,000 players. It will focus the public eye much more on player salaries and as such it should make clubs more wary about cheating. This allows the public to act as a kind of citizen cop on the salary cap and while it won’t stop dodgy deals it will shine a spotlight on deals that don’t make sense at face value. All this argument over privacy is absurd. American sports pay their players infinitely more and those salaries are made public. The same should occur here. The benefit of a public register sure outweighs the minor loss of a player’s privacy.

The size of the cap needs to be expanded so that team lists are expanded to 35. This is not a push for an increase in player payments at the top end. If anything, it is a push against that. This is about expanding a team’s roster so there is more room for old hard heads and players who are late to develop so that each team has depth. Phil Gould is right when he talks about the 100-plus Australians playing in Super League. Many of those players would have gone regardless but there would be plenty who would have stayed in the NRL had there been an opportunity to stay. With the small amount of roster space and the skewing towards youth, plenty of fringe first graders have been forced to go to England. Expansion of roster sizes is a must because young players aren’t being given enough time to mature, there is not enough social policing in clubs due to a lack of experienced players and when injuries occur teams have no chance because they have no experienced players to turn to. This hurts the game as a spectacle, the individual player and the club who has nowhere else to turn.

The NRL needs to become more flexible with the cap in terms of long serving players and local juniors. Loyalty to both the club and the game need to be rewarded. The same goes for those clubs that develop younger talent. It makes perfect sense.

The older player discount is very simple and should have been instituted a decade ago. After, for example, seven years of first grade with the one club, only 90% of that player’s salary counts against the cap, decreasing 10% each year he stays loyal. This will ensure more senior players stay in the NRL as they won’t be forced out early due to salary cap constraints. Steve Menzies and Craig Fitzgibbon are but two who should still be playing NRL football but were forced out because of the salary cap. The game needs to be rewarding these players who, for the most part, have become the faces of their club. There is no valid argument that holds up against a senior player discount.

Clubs should also be rewarded for developing talent rather than just poaching it. I can completely understand why the Storm feel they are entitled to keep Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Greg Inglis. They bought them all to Melbourne as kids and through good coaching and a culture of victory they turned them into superstars. The same is true of Dallas Johnson, Israel Folau, Matt King and plenty others. Melbourne should be rewarded for not buying premierships through the poaching of superstars. If anything, the only players the Storm recruited were bit players required to fill the gaps of home made superstars who had gone elsewhere for the big pay day. The NRL needs to look at offering further discounts for players bought up through a club’s ranks otherwise there is very little incentive to develop players and more clubs will become like the Roosters than the Storm.

The final amendment needed to make the salary cap workable is scrapping this limit on third-party payments. Elite players should be able to earn their worth. If sponsors are willing to pay them, let them take the cash. Rugby league should not be turning away offers to inject money into the sport that will keep the elite players playing rugby league in Australia. This will essentially even out over the competition. Sure, Brisbane will probably benefit more than most while the Sharks will probably suffer but the difference won’t be that much and at any rate this happens on the sly at many clubs and allowing it will actually make the system more egalitarian.

One issue that has been getting way too much airplay is the amount of money Robbie Kearns earned after his playing days were over. It was reported that Kearns earned $360,000 over three years in what was reported to be “an office boy role”. Firstly, I have it on good authority that Kearns was plenty more than just a simply office boy. He wasn’t just spending a few hours a day photocopying and making coffee and making the odd deposit to his wank bank by using the office computers for porn. Kearns had many roles at the Storm. He spent time learning about the marketing side of the business and would often sit in on sponsors meetings to learn the game. He was used as a skills coach. He was used in an ambassadorial role where he would represent the club interstate, with sponsors and on game day where he played the gracious host in the Robbie Kearns Lounge. Kearns getting paid for a career in football by his old club is hardly Armstrong walking on the moon or William Webb Ellis picking up the soccer ball. Be it coaching staffs or front offices, league clubs are full of ex-players. Players have a right to make an earn when their playing days are over and naturally they turn to the game that they know and the club they have called home. Clubs can’t be punished for looking after favourite sons in their post-playing days. Be sure and certain that Darren Lockyer will be working at Red Hill when he stops playing and he has earned that right and the right to whatever catch he can negotiate.

The one good that can come from all this clusterfuck is a better system of talent redistribution that allows the game to keep the best players playing rugby league in Australia, that rewards loyalty and that encourages clubs to develop their own young talent. Hopefully David Gallop and the NRL will realise that now is the time to debate the terms of the salary cap and hopefully they are flexible enough to listen to good ideas rather than defend a system that clearly isn’t working. Now is the time for inclusiveness, to involve all the game’s best thinkers and take the sport forward. Stubbornness and cheap politicking will only lead to an opportunity lost.

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