There Should Be Little Sympathy for the Greedy

Filed in Other by on December 11, 2010

Rugby league players in Australia have it better now than at any point in their century old history. They have signed a generous collective bargaining agreement that is the most generous in Australian sport and nearly every player in the code is better off compared to his equivalent even five years ago let alone further back in history.

The residential rule that restricted player movement by requiring a player to live within the boundaries of his club’s area survived for the first 52 years of the game but is now nothing but a remnant of history. The draconian transfer system that was virtually a replica of the reserve clause in American sports that ensured the club retained the rights to a player even when a contract expired, meaning players were virtually indentured servants of their club for life, survived for over a decade until Balmain player Dennis Tutty bought about its undoing through a long and protracted court case.

A free market was virtually opened in the seventies after the Tutty case and as television and sponsorship money entered the game and with the professionalism bought about by Super League in the mid-nineties, the rise in the value of the game post-Super League and the constant bark of the Rugby League Professionals Association, players have been given a very good run for the last thirty years with the game today essentially paying players what it can afford. There has been no argument that the game is syphoning off money that should go back to the players.

Yet players, particularly those at the sharp end of the pay-scale, have used the Storm salary cap scandal to bemoan their restrictive working conditions. They have criticised everything from the existence of the salary cap to the size of representative match payments, the restrictions placed on third party payments, the dimensions of the cap and the amount given back to players.

The salary cap, as it currently stands, is far from perfect. The simple facts, however, are that a salary cap is necessary for both a strong competition and the survival of many clubs and more relevant, the RLPA and, as such the players, signed off on the current collective bargaining agreement in 2006. The demand by players now for greater payments while threatening to abandon the code is nothing but opportunistic greed by those who are already well looked after.

Simply look at the advancements made by players over the course of the current labour deal. The cap has risen by over $900,000 and 24.7% in five years. The NRL guarantees $1.28 million annually to the Retirement Fund, a significant improvement on the 1% of total player wages in place beforehand which equated to around $504,000. The Marquee Player Allowance increased by $50,000, a rise of 33%. The Veteran Player Concession was reduced by two years meaning more money is available to long serving players. Origin match payments were lifted from $8,500 for a win and $6,500 for a loss to $12,500 for all players while Test match payments have gone up 20% from $5,000 to $6,000. The RLPA negotiated a position on the Salary Cap Review committee. The minimum wage for top 25 players has gone up from $37,500 to $50,000 with minimum $2,000 match payments for any player outside the top 25 and $25,000 salaries for players outside the top 25 required to train with the full-time squad for six-plus weeks. A promise that 30% of all future NRL revenues above the budgeted amounts will be directed to the players through either the salary cap or the Retirement Fund, a new instrument not included in any previous collective bargaining agreements.

The players signed off on this and by any measure it is a generous agreement that sees players receive a greater percentage of money made by the game than those in the AFL, A-League or the ARU. If they are not happy then they should instruct negotiators to get a better deal. They also have to realise that with greater financial rewards come not only greater responsibilities to promote the game but further concessions in terms of reduced privacy terms and further commitments to talent equalisation measures put in place by the NRL.

There will certainly be an increase in the size of the salary cap. There will be an opening up of third party restrictions, an increase in long service and potentially development dispensations, a rise in rep payments and an increase in the money given to the Retirement Fund. There will also most likely be a boost to the minimum wage and hopefully even the size of the full-time squad from 25 to somewhere around 30-35.

The players had better be prepared to budge though. They will have to make policing the salary cap easier by opening up their personal records to the salary cap auditor with the potential of a public salary cap register high on the agenda. Players will have to accept that the salary cap is necessary to the survival of the game. Players could also be forced to accept exit payments or a Retirement Fund penalty if they choose to defect to the AFL or rugby union.

The players will soon get their wish and have terms of the salary cap and their collective bargaining agreement renegotiated. Whatever the bluster now, it won’t stop players defecting for reasons of greed and avarice. It will, however, hopefully ensure NRL players are paid a fair amount, that the majority of marquee players will stay in the game, that the salary cap becomes easier to manage, that the system of talent equalisation is maintained, that loyalty and player development is rewarded and that the NRL does not turn back money from those outside the game wanting to give money to the sport and its top players.

There should be no sympathy for those players who have bled every dollar from the game with little consideration for the code though. That sympathy should be reserved for long-standing servants of the game, club men and league advocates who deserve better but have never threatened the sport with abandonment.

The likes of Petero Civoniceva, Cameron Smith and Darren Lockyer have every right to speak up for what they believe is wrong with the game. They have done their time, served their dues, earned the right to speak up. The likes of Jarryd Hayne, however, have not. Cheap threats from his kind should be met with an open invitation to leave and a warning that he will not be welcome back in the sport. Ever.

The top tier players need a basic economic lesson and realise that there are limited resources available and that the extra dollars they take may well come at the expense of lower and middle tiered teammates. The salary cap cannot simply be negotiated to suit the top level talent, many of whom will get cushy media and coaching and administrative jobs post-playing days. It must also protect those other players who make up teams and squads and are critical to high level play and team success but who rarely receive a good deal of credit, never receive monster deals and rarely remain in the game post-playing.

When the deal does go down, though, and the new salary cap is in place and the new collective bargaining agreement has been negotiated, the players will have no right to whinge and moan and demand more. Those that do should be viewed as leeches and greedheads who rugby league do not need. The chatter ends once the deals are signed. And then we can all move on for the good of the sport.

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